Toni Simmons Henson, ABTF Co-founder & Exec. Producing Director, Speaker, Spoken Word Poet & Author

I am a serial entrepreneur, a graduate of Howard University and NYU, a wife, and a mother of four. I found myself in financial ruin after a failed franchised business venture during the economic recession of 2008-10. Despondent and depressed from suffering a six-figure loss, I lay awake at night, reflecting on how this experience had impacted my family. I'd lost everything we'd built the last 22 years: including our savings, investments, and even the children’s college fund.

On a late summer night in August 2011, I cried out to GOD for direction and heard His answer in four words: Atlanta Black Theatre Festival. It was so intuitive that I'd thought the festival already existed. But it did not. 

During that time, people of color in the United States were suffering politically and socially. The election of the nation's first Black president resulted in a backlash that culminated in an increasingly divided nation. The public image of Black men perpetuated by the media was waging war against the community psyche that was literally killing the Black community on all fronts. Then it happened, on February 26, 2012; Trayvon Martin was assassinated. The widespread ludicrosity of emotions hadn't been experienced since the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968. This incident set in motion a fury of resistance. It also came with a compelling and desperate urge to do something. 

For me, the Atlanta Black Theatre Festival needed a mandate, purpose, and a reason why to be sustainable. These were made clear. I understood that the richness of our heritage and historical legacy had been replaced by a myth. These myths criminalized and dehumanized the very existence of Americans of African descent. I knew the journey across the African diaspora was filled with stories that needed to be told to shatter those myths. Moreover, people of color needed love, nurturing, and healing. I also know that could begin within the community through the power of the arts. The Atlanta Black Theatre Festival would soon become that important platform. 

Wanda Simmons, my sister, had also recently suffered a set-back She'd been laid-off from her state government job. I'd then propose that she move in so we could pool our family resources, and help build this vision. It was the perfect storm. 

Wanda had experience as a festival organizer during the 1990s with the National Council of Negro Women's Black Family Reunions under the director of the legendary Dr. Dorothy Height. I was a serial entrepreneur with years of marketing and business expertise.

We both pooled our talents and skills. In October 2012, the inaugural Atlanta Black Theatre Festival (ABTF) was launched. This inaugural year set the bar high with attendance. Over 2,500 theatre lovers from all over the country descended on Atlanta. Over 300 artists presented 40 plays in four days and took over all three stages at the 14th Street Playhouse. Additionally, 240 rooms were booked at the nearby Loews Hotel in midtown Atlanta. 

But unfortunately, all was not a success. When the ticket proceeds were tallied, expenses exceeded revenues by almost $15,000. We were faced with a dilemma. We didn't have enough to pay the performers. This was not a part of the vision, but we were determined to do anything to make things right. After witnessing how hard we worked, our Mother Marian Simmons, with faith in our vision, stepped up to the plate to loan us the money to cover the outstanding balances. I then resorted to driving Uber early mornings to repay the debt to my mother and help with family expenses.

Although times were tough, we couldn't let this vision dissipate. Wanda and I hit reset, took a deep dive analysis, and geared up for year two. We worked for 12-14 hours a day planning the next festival. In the meantime, Anja Williams, a marketing administrator at the Porter Sanford III Performing Arts Center (PSPAC) encouraged us to bring the festival to historic Decatur. Again, the timing was perfectly divine. The 14th Street Playhouse would soon thereafter be purchased by a private college a few months later. 

The PSPAC turned out to be a true GOD send with 42,000 square feet of state-of-art performance space, free parking, free of midtown traffic, classrooms, a gallery, and a catering kitchen. The venue made way for expanding the festival programming to include hosting international and local vendors, an art exhibit, classes, a cafe-restaurant, and a bar. This created the opportunity for additional streams of revenue separate from the ticket fees paid directly to the artists. In addition to a steady stream of donations from art enthusiasts, this business model has sustained the festival to this day.


In eight short years, the Atlanta Black Theatre Festival has provided a platform for over 150 playwrights to self-produce their original works in Atlanta. Some playwrights are local and many playwrights have traveled from afar representing 24 states and three countries. The ABTF has also provided performance opportunities for over 2,000 artists entertaining thousands of theatre enthusiasts. 

Wanda decided to go back to school and earn her Bachelor's degree. She currently works with children in the human services industry and lives in south Atlanta. She still serves as Chief Adjudicator for the Atlanta Black Theatre Festival. 

Our two oldest children graduated with full-scholarships from the US Naval Academy and Spelman College and one is currently a senior at Hampton University on a partial scholarship. My husband and I just celebrated 30 years of marriage. Antonio currently serves on the Advisory Board.

To date, the festival operates 100% debt-free. More importantly, we're telling our stories. 


Toni Simmons Henson, ABTF Co-founder & Exec. Producing Director, Speaker, Spoken Word Poet, Author



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