Toni Simmons Henson, a serial entrepreneur, graduate of Howard University and NYU, wife and mother of four, was in financial ruin after a failed franchised business venture during the economic recession of 2008-10. Despondent and depressed having suffered six-figures in losses, she lay awake at night reflecting on how this experience had impacted her family. She'd lost everything she and her husband had built in the last 22 years including savings, investments and even their children’s college fund.
On a late summer night in August 2011, she cried out to GOD for direction and heard His answer in four words: Atlanta Black Theatre Festival. It was so intuitive that she thought the festival already existed. But it did not.
At the same time, people of color in the United States were also suffering politically and socially. Despite the election of the nation's first Black president, the backlash was evidence of 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 magnitude of this shot had arguably not been felt since the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. This incident set in motion a fury of resistance. With it came a compelling desperation to do something.
The Atlanta Black Theatre Festival needed a mandate, a purpose, and a reason why. This made it clear. Toni understood that the richness of the African-American heritage and the historical legacy had been replaced by a myth. This myth criminalized and dehumanized the very existence of Americans of African descent. The journey of Black people across the diaspora was filled with stories that needed to be told to shatter those myths. Moreover, people of color needed love, nurturing and healing. And that needed to begin within the community through the power of the arts. The Atlanta Black Theatre Festival would become that platform.
Wanda Simmons, Toni's sister, had also recently suffered a set-back having been laid-off from her state government job. Henson proposed that her sister move in, pool their family resources, and help build this vision. It was the perfect storm.
Wanda had experience as a festival organizer during the 1990's with the National Council of Negro Women's Black Family Reunions under the director of the legendary Dr. Dorothy Height. Toni had been a serial entrepreneur with years of marketing and business expertise.
They both pooled their talents and skills and in October 2012, the inaugural Atlanta Black Theatre Festival (ABTF) was launched. This inaugural year set the bar high with attendance in excess of 2,500 theatre lovers from all over the country. 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. The sisters were faced with a dilemma. They didn't have enough to pay all the performers. This was not a part of the vision; but they were determined to do everything to make things right. After witnessing how hard her daughters had worked, Mother Marian Simmons had faith in their vision and stepped up to the plate to loan them the money to cover the outstanding balances. Toni then resorted to driving Uber early mornings to repay the debt to her mother and help with family expenses while her patient husband, Antonio Henson and children joined in offering spiritual and emotional support.
They just couldn't let this vision dissipate. Toni and Wanda hit reset, took a deep dive analysis and geared up for year two. They worked 12-14 hours a day planning for the next festival. In the meantime, Anja Williams, a marketing administrator at the Porter Sanford III Performing Arts Center (PSPAC) encouraged them to bring the festival to historic Decatur. Again, the timing was perfectly divine. Little did they know, the 14th Street Playhouse would be purchased a few months later by a private college.
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 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 is the business model that 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.
The Henson's two oldest children graduated with full-scholarships from the US Naval Academy and Spelman College and one is a currently a senior at Hampton University on a partial scholarship. Toni and her husband, Antonio 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.
TO GOD WE GIVE THE GLORY!
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