Dozens of original theatrical performances focused on the black community will be featured at the third annual DC Black Theatre Festival, beginning Saturday at locations throughout the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.

"[The festival] really affords opportunities for theater practitioners to develop their skill sets and produce work that focus on the African-American aesthetic," says board member Denise J. Hart.

Following in the footsteps of the biennial National Black Theatre Festival in North Carolina, the D.C. festival features 45 full length plays, workshops, special guest appearances and a reading series focusing on new works. Busboys & Poets in Hyattsville will also host the five day One-Act Battle, a competition in which audiences get to vote for their favorite play of the night.

Anchoring this year's festival is the Living Legacy Series, a group of five plays focused on the lives on five iconic African-Americans, such as Harriet Tubman and Langston Hughes. The festival runs Saturday through July 1 at locations in Montgomery and Prince George's counties as well as the District and Northern Virginia.

Theater productions featured in the festival fall into three categories: traditional, urban and gospel stage plays, Hart says. While traditional theater is the straight-forward type of plays the average person would be used to, urban theater can encompass plays that veer away from the mainstream with their structure and plot.

"It's a wide range of production styles and performances —everything from family to experimental to comedy to gospel," she says. "It is meant to do that on purpose. It's meant to create relationships between traditional and urban theater."

Plays for the non-juried festival were selected on a first-come, first-served basis and feature many works by emerging playwrights, Hart says.

After her play "The Heroes' Tale" had a successful reading at last year's festival, Cheryl Butler-Poole is bringing a fully-staged version of the story back to the DC Black Theatre Festival this year on June 29-30 at Montgomery College's Cultural Arts Center in Silver Spring.

"I got the response that I wanted from the reading [last year] when the audience gasped all at the same time and applauded and made comments," she says.

"The Heroes' Tale" tells the story of four aging black men living in the Dupont Circle area of Washington, D.C. in the 1980s. Told through a series of flashbacks to the 1960s, the men called themselves the Dupont Circle Heroes after they helped rescue a little girl who broke her leg in an alley, but were not praised for their actions.

"They thought they'd be given accolades, but instead they were marginalized," she says.

Years later, after several of the men spend time in jail after being falsely accused of a horrific crime, they meet a girl who believes one of them is her father. The story is loosely based on a real group of guys Butler-Poole met when she was growing up in Washington, D.C.

"It tells a story about Washington, the story is a local story about local people. It mentions local places. There are not a whole lot of plays that are unique to Washington, and this one is," Butler-Poole says.

The show also features her husband, Gregory Poole, as one of the lead characters. Poole believes that the story will hit home with people in the D.C.-area who were familiar with the racism of the 1960s.

"The overall message is of loyalty and betrayal and staying true to who you are, and I think the overall message touches a lot of people on a lot of different levels," he says.

It is also Ayesis Clay's second time being a part of the DC Black Theatre Festival, but having performed in a show last year, she is excited to return as a playwright. Her unique show, "Standing on the Edge," will premiere Saturday at Joe's Movement Emporium in Mount Rainier.

The story is about surviving adolescence told only through spoken-word poetry and dance, Clay says. The five principal characters represent five high school personas, such as a jock and a bookworm. While the characters do perform spoken-word monologues to the audience, there is no dialogue in the show and the only character-to-character interaction is through movement.

As the department chair of Suitland High School's Center for the Visual and Performing Arts, Clay was inspired to write the show based on some of her experiences as an educator. She also used poetry from her own high school years in the production.

"I think [the DC Black Theatre Festival] is a really good opportunity for up and coming writers and even established writers to really get their work heard," she says. "What this does is it gives more people an opportunity to get their work seen on a larger scale and in front of more people."

Clay also believes the festival provides and opportunity for audiences to enjoy a wide range of plays while providing a platform system for black actors and writers to be seen.

"It gives the black artist an opportunity to get work and that's always a great thing," she says. "As an audience it gives you an opportunity to see us on the stage to hear us tells stories that are relevant to us."

ccalamaio@gazette.net