Saturday, December 15, 2012

Langston Hughes' Black Nativity Play - History & Contemporary Performance Reviews

Edited by Azizi Powell

This is Part I of a two part series on Langston Hughes' Christmas play "Black Nativity".

Part I includes historical information about Langston's Hughes' "Black Nativity" play as well as reviews of two productions of that play. Part II also includes my description of "Black Nativity" based on my experiences of that play in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and based on my online research of other productions.

Click for Part II of this series

Part II features five videos of songs that have been featured in a production of Black Nativity.

The content of this post is presented for historical, religious, entertainment, and aesthetic reasons.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

These excerpts are provided in no particular order, and are only numbered for references sake.

Excerpt #1 (Historical information)
"Langston’s Hughes Black Nativity
The Christmas story in dialogue, narrative, pantomime, gospel song and folk spirituals—the unique creation of the poet and playwright Langston Hughes...

As a young man, Hughes participated enthusiastically in the activities of the Karamu Players in Cleveland, and later he was to found Negro theatres in Harlem, Los Angeles and Chicago. He wrote a number of plays and musicals and then came to his own special creation which he calls "the Gospel Song-Play"... which is Black Nativity. First performed at the York Theatre and then at President Kennedy's International Jazz Festival, it went on to cause a sensation at the Festival of Two Worlds at Spoleto, Italy. A New York Times critic reporting from Spoleto wrote, "Sophisticated Italian audiences greeted Black Nativity with enthusiasm, taking part in the singing and hand clapping and insisting on curtain call after curtain call." The staid Rome newspaper Il Tempo wrote, "The elegant festival public appeared to have forgotten itself, lost in this rhythmic wave that overwhelmed it, an integral part itself that bound stage and auditorium in a mystical fusion." In London, Oslo, Brussels, Copenhagen and Rotterdam, Black Nativity triumphed before its return to New York and the then-new Lincoln Center. Black Nativity is designed for you to add the music of your choice (from spirituals to traditional carols or your original compositions) and dance. This thrilling holiday piece will have your audiences on their feet!"
[Italics added by me to highlight that sentence.]

Excerpt #2 (Historical information)
"On December 11th, 1961 at the 41st St Theater in New York City, six gospel singers made history. Backed up by only a piano and a B-3 Hammond organ, they performed BLACK NATIVITY by African American poet and playwright Langston Hughes. He titled it "A Gospel Song-Play because it combined traditional gospel spirituals with narration about the birth of Jesus. After only 50 performances on Broadway, BLACK NATIVITY closed."

Excerpt #3 (Overview of the Act 1 & Act 2, Historical information) added on 12/16/2012
"LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL 'Black Nativity' gives traditional Christmas story a cultural twist By Steve Bornfeld
"...Angled through a cultural prism, the opening chapter of The Greatest Story Ever Told -- and retold a couple millennia later -- looks like this:

"First it tells the story of the birth of Christ," says Robert Connor, director/co-producer of "Black Nativity," reimagining the hallowed Christmas staple with an all-black cast, as envisioned by a black playwright. "The second act, you see the residue of those characters -- the shepherd, the king, the deacons and elders of the church, the young people -- morphing into modern-day characters to see how the birth of Christ and that moment relates to the present day."

Penned by playwright-poet Langston Hughes, "Black Nativity" returns for its third annual Las Vegas production this weekend at Cashman Theatre by the Trinity Entertainment Group. The gospel-flavored musical dates back 47 years to its 1961 Broadway debut as one of the first pieces by a black writer to grace what was, in more than one sense, the Great White Way. The original cast included a young Alvin Ailey...

A score brimming with rousing spirituals sweeps through "Black Nativity," whose opening act portrays Christ's birth, retracing the journey of Mary and Joseph -- regally garbed in African costumes -- to Bethlehem. By the second act, the play time-travels 2,000 years to a contemporary black church on Christmas Day and a veritable hallelujah-fest of testifying deacons and passionate preaching."
"Black Nativity"'s Wikipedia page includes the following information about Alvin Ailey:
"The original name for this play was Wasn’t It a Mighty Day? Alvin Ailey was a part of the original Off-Broadway cast, but he and Carmen de Lavallade departed from the show prior to opening in a dispute over the title being changed to Black Nativity."
Three videos of Trinity Entertainment Group's productions of "Black Nativity" are featured in Part II of this post. The link for Part II is given at the beginning of this post.

Excerpt #4 (A Review of A Black Nativity Play, Description of Act I and Act 2)
"True Colors Theatre Company's Black Nativity
by Curt Holman December 24, 2008A&E» Theater Review

Audiences could be forgiven for worrying that True Colors Theatre Company's Black Nativity might evoke a high school's annual birth of Jesus holiday pageant. The perennial musical's first half takes place "When Christ was born" and hits all the requisite beats of the first Christmas: angels, shepherds, Magi, etc. Plus, True Colors follows a similar approach as its recent holiday productions of The Wiz by casting primarily high school and college students as well as some recent graduates.

Fortunately, Langston Hughes' Black Nativity resembles a revue more than a plot-and-character-driven musical.... Featuring 24 exuberant players, Black Nativity's first half offers a vibrant swirl of African-American gospel songs and African costumes, suggesting the Nativity story by way of Broadway's The Lion King....

Act Two depicts a Christmas service at the Life Church, where the well-off parishioners first ignore, then accept a homeless man (Sam Collier) in a contemporary metaphor for the "No room at the inn" lesson. The cast seemed to particularly relish the contemporary story, possibly because it's closer to their own experience than the first half's parable quality. DeMille Cole-Heard, Reginald Degratfenraidt and Desmond Ellington double as the three wise men and three of the church's deacons, and bring enormous enthusiasm to the impassioned, old-school testifying songs.

Perhaps because numerous church groups were in attendance, the audience response to Black Nativity's contemporary half was electric, cheering and calling out "Amen!" where appropriate. It didn't hurt that the Rialto Center for the Performing Arts even has the look of a modern-day mega-church. … the show features so many highlights – such as the a cappella verse of "Oh, Come All Ye Faithful" – that it becomes a thrilling seasonal spectacle in its own right. These young people don't need to be graded on a curve."
One video of True Colors Theatre Company's production of "Black Nativity" are featured in Part II of this post. The link for Part II is given at the beginning of this post.

Excerpt #5: (A Review of A Black Nativity Play; Description of Act I & Act 2)
"Black Nativity at H Street Playhouse: A moving and inspiring gospel celebration
Black Nativity December 7, 2011 By: Sarah Hearn
The Theater Alliance kicked off its ninth season with Langston Hughes' Black Nativity, a classic re-telling of the Christmas story. The production, directed by Stephawn Stephens, transformed the stage at the H Street Playhouse in Washington, DC into a finely woven tapestry, captivating the audience with exuberant and exhilarating song and dance.

Act I tells the story of the birth of Jesus and is filled with rich gospel, blues, funk, jazz music and dance, with griot-style story telling from the ensemble cast. Tony Thomas (Joseph) and Kiera Turner (Mary) bring electricity to the story as they gracefully dance to "No Room at the Inn,” illustrating the couple's desperation and efforts to find shelter.

There are humorous moments as the couple meets interesting characters along the way. Comical encounters at places like “Sasha Fierce Hair Salon” and “Hylemai Harem Hideaway” kept the audience laughing. However, Turner’s emotive dance while illustrating Mary’s labor is a moving moment that transports the watcher to that pivotal night in Bethlehem.

In Act II, the cast performs gospel songs with the fervor of a church revival. The soul-stirring renditions of spirituals and gospel hits sprinkled the atmosphere with electricity and energy. Many in the audience were moved as they clapped their hands in rhythm and lifted their hands in praise. The stage was transformed into a church and the audience became its congregants."
One video of The Theater Alliance's production of "Black Nativity" are featured in Part II of this post. The link for Part II is given at the beginning of this post.

Excerpt #6 (Information about upcoming "Black Nativity" film)
"Kasi Lemmons Says "Black Nativity" Film Adaptation Still In Development & "It's Going To Be Dope"
by Tambay A. Obenson, June 24, 2011 5:01 AM

In April 2009, it was announced that Langston Hughes' gospel musical Black Nativity (a retelling of the Bible's nativity story with an all-black cast and features traditional Christmas carols sung in gospel style) would be adapted for the big screen, with Kasi Lemmons writing and directing. At the time, Fox Searchlight was said to be fast-tracking the project for a possible Christmas 2009 release.

Well, obviously that didn't happen. So much for the "fast-track."

Fast-forward to today, just over 2 years later, and Lemmons reveals, when asked what she's currently working on: "A gospel musical titled, The Black Nativity. It's a film adaptation of the very slender book Langston Hues [sic] wrote in 1961. At the time it was very controversial. The story is about a kid from Baltimore whose mother has to send him to live with her estranged parents. He's dealing with people he didn't know including his grandmother who is a preacher; he falls in a deep sleep at church and dreams of the black nativity. It's going to be dope."
"It's going to be dope" means "It's going to be very good"

It appears that few if any production companies perform a strict rendition of Langston Hughes' "Black Nativity" play as it was performed in 1961. Instead, the content of "Black Nativity" - including which songs are performed, and which lines are spoken - widely varies among production companies.

Furthermore, in part as a way of ensuring repeat attendees, annual productions of "Black Nativity" by the same production company aren't exactly the same from year to year.

The summary statement in Excerpt #5 that the "Black Nativity" play "features traditional Christmas carols sung in gospel style" is also found on that play's Wikipedia page By traditional Christmas Carols, I believe those writers mean songs such as such as "Silent Night", Come All Ye Faithful", "Joy To The World", "Hark The Herald Angels Sing",l and "O Little Town Of Bethleham". I can't recall if any of those song were sung at any of the six productions based on Langston Hughes' "Black Nativity" that I attended in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (from 1997-2000, 2004 and 2007)*. If they were performed, they were only a very small part of the repertoire of songs for those productions. I believe that is also the case for other productions of "Black Nativity" that are reviewed online and or featured in YouTube videos.

All of the productions of "Black Nativity" that I attended in Pittsburgh featured traditional Black Christmas Spirituals in Act I and contemporary Black Gospel songs in Act II. By "traditional Black Christmas Spirituals" I mean songs such as "Oh What A Pretty Little Baby", "What Do You Call That Pretty Little Baby", "Rise Up Shepherds And Follow", "Behold That Star", and "Go Tell It On The Mountain". Most of the online videos of "Black Nativity" of productions of this play in other United States cities include this same division of traditional Black Spirituals & contemporay Black Gospel songs. That said, those productions don't perform the same songs from those genres.

Also, for what it's worth, I've never attended any production of "Black Nativity" whose story was centered around a boy who was sent to live with his grandparents as described in Excerpt #5.

It appears from my direct experiences & from my online research that Act I of "Black Nativity" based productions usually include female & male dancers & other performers, including those persons playing Mary & Joseph wearing traditional West African African clothing or clothing which is inspired by traditional West African attire from Guinea, West Africa and from the Yoruba peoples of Nigeria, West Africa.

In Act II performers usually wear 20th century or 21st century church attire (males -suits, females - dresses, medium length skirts & blouses, often with hats, although few women actually wear hats in most Black church services since at least the 1990s).

*In 2012 I also attended a production in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania that duction was entitled "Nativity: A Christmas Gift" which was very loosely based on Langston Hughes "Black Nativity". That production featured contemporary Black Gospel songs & none of the above mentioned traditional Black Christmas Spirituals (which may also referred to as Christmas Gospels). asongs. However, like other "Black Nativity" based productions, "Nativity: A Christmas Gift" heavily featured African drumming & dancing in (what appeared to me to be) Guinean West African attire. That play also featured modern dancing, R&B/Hip/Hop dancing, as well as dramatic recitations & skits that were sometimes religious, and sometimes humorous.

Thanks to Langston Hughes for writing the "Black Nativity" song/play. Thanks to all those whose articles are featured in this post. Thanks to all those affiliated with "Black Nativity" productions.

Thank you for visiting pancocojams.

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