Black Nativity

A Stirring Theatrical Event reflects the Birth of American Black Consciousness

Courtesy of C. Stanley Photography

Theaters in major cities across the United States put on annual productions of Black Nativity, a musical which celebrates the story of the birth of Christ. The Tremont Temple in Boston has produced a version of Black Nativity every year since 1969. Here in DC, the Theater Alliance in collaboration with the Anacostia Playhouse and Bowie State University will stage their own production this holiday season. This retelling of the Christmas story from an Afro-centric perspective is infused with rich gospel, blues, funk, jazz, and dance with griot style story telling from an ensemble cast. Embracing the original spirit of Hughes’ work, Black Nativity serves as a deep exploration of cultural identity, pride, and unity within the African-American community while also bringing a fresh voice to this holiday classic.

Directed by Eric Ruffin, with music direction by e’Marcus Harper-Short and choreography by Princess Mhoon, Black Nativity will feature a talented ensemble cast of DC based performers. While the birth of Christ and religious themes feature prominently in Black Nativity, the musical, written by Langston Hughes and first performed off-Broadway in 1961, radically breaks with the theatrical traditions of the past and embodies the zeitgeist of the emerging “Black Consciousness” of the 1960s.

Langston Hughes Breaks the Tradition

In the fifty year span since Hughes wrote Black Nativity, American society has grown more tolerant of multiculturalism. American audiences have seen more complex roles depicted for traditionally stereotyped groups like African Americans, Latinos, and Asians.

Langston Hughes came from a family that valued education and racial pride above all else.  His grandmother was part Native American and part African American. She had wed an African American man who died during John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry. Hughes’ other grandfather was white and lived openly with an African American woman and their children. Scholars have argued that Hughes’ multiculturalism coupled with his exposure to different races and cultures, gave him keen insight into his own “Black Identity.” 

While considered a secular intellectual by biographers, Hughes always respected people of faith. He understood the importance of the religion to African Americans and the role the church played in creating community while also providing identity and a refuge from life’s hardships. Originally called Wasn’t it a Mighty Day, Black Nativity consists of two acts centered on Christian themes. The first act, well known to Christians, recounts the story of Joseph and his pregnant wife Mary seeking a place to stay, eventually finding shelter in a manger where Mary gives birth to Jesus, the son of God. The second act takes place present day in an African American church. 

Hughes’ genius in Black Nativity lies in his ability to introduce readily identifiable cultural elements from the African Diaspora while recounting of one of the defining moments of Western Civilization. Gospel music, honky-tonk, quartets, trios and other traditionally black music form the core of the musical. Other elements such as drums, African patterned costumes and backdrops all intimate a radical departure from the demeaning racial stereotypes that dominated American theater in Hughes’ lifetime.  Some of Hughes’ early co-creators (Alvin Ailey for one) actually broke rank with him when he decided to change the name from Wasn’t it a Might Day to Black Nativity, highlighting the division within the African American community of the early 1960s over Hughes interpretation of “Black Identity.” 

The introduction of elements from the African Diaspora into Black Nativity marks a major milestone in reclaiming the culture of the African American community. By adding traditionally black music, dance and symbols, Hughes was among the first to propose an African American aesthetic in an era when black playwrights strove to expand the lexicon of European-originated theater in order to demonstrate their creative prowess and ability to assimilate.

A Link to Divinity

So why use the birth of Christ as a means of exploring identity and reclaiming one’s culture?  For Theater Alliance Director Eric Ruffin the answer is simple, “[Hughes] links [Black Nativity] to divinity which does great things for the psyche. Gospel music is inspiring and can be transformative and ecstatic; through this ecstasy, this out-of-body experience, you become closer to God. ”  

For Ruffin, Black Nativity aligns with his philosophy that theater should do more than just create empathy between the audience member and the cast. Theater should nurture people spiritually, intellectually and provide a “transformative” experience. Black Nativity does all of this.

Even if you have seen a production of Black Nativity before, no two productions are alike. In fact, Hughes intended for the performance to transcend space and time. He provided an allowance in the script giving the director full discretion to select contemporary music to ensure that the spirit of Black Nativity resonated throughout the ages by adapting to an ever-changing African American aesthetic.

Black Nativity performances take place at the Anacostia Playhouse December 11, 2014 – January 4, 2015 and at Bowie State University November 29, 2014 – December 7, 2014.  For more information and to purchase tickets go to: www.theateralliance.com/project/black-nativity-2014