Dallas — There are as many versions of Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity as there are playhouses that produce it. It wouldn’t be fair to compare one to another, and to juxtapose each interpretation against the original would be too daunting of a task. So, after seeing the Bishop Arts Theatre Center’s production of the play last weekend, I had a hard time finding a sound starting point for developing an opinion.
Hughes was, after all, an outspoken social activist for the African-American community and a prolific poet, novelist, and playwright. When he first wrote Black Nativity in 1961, he sought to bring the story of the birth of Jesus Christ into an enlightened cultural relevance for the black community. Throughout the decades, new plotlines have evolved by way of apposite reinterpretations in order to appeal more directly to audiences of the time.
The original concept, which opened as an off-Broadway production and grew to see international success, called for more than 160 singers, dancers, and musicians, setting Hughes’ poetry alongside traditional gospel standards and Christmas carols. A quintessential representation of African-American art, it is a staple piece for many black churches and theater companies during the holiday season as it captures so well the cultural pride of the black community and a unique reverence for sacred traditions.
Unfortunately, much of the vim and vigor that one would expect from this show is missing at the BATC, which is in its 15th year of producing Black Nativity. Not so much in terms of the cast’s onstage energy, but rather from the overall interpretation itself.
Director Selmore Haines, III, sets the plot in the sanctuary of a predominantly black church during a rehearsal for their production of, naturally, Black Nativity. The first half of the show sees the full culmination of a plotline involving an outdated sense of discomfort toward interracial marriages surrounding a heavy-handed, albeit more socially relevant, theme of police violence against black men.
Punctuated by contemporary gospel songs, including a rather comical rendition of Sister Act II’s upbeat version of “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee,” the narrative barely leaves the ground as we witness a bitter church official overcome his personal prejudices against the newest additions to the congregation, which includes a white cop and his black wife. The characters have little room to grow and evolve as the drama of the first half ties itself up neatly in a solid half-hour, almost like an after-school special.
The second half of the show is devoted to the church’s production of Black Nativity. Here, the audience is given some clever portrayals of many holiday favorites, like “What Child is This” and “No Room in the Inn” as they deliver a gospel retelling of the nativity story. It’s almost clever enough—a play within a play—but, again, there’s barely enough there for one to sink one’s teeth into before the sudden, unexpected curtain call. This portion of the performance does provide a rich and exciting layer of artistry to the overall attempt, though, and may be the show’s saving grace.
What’s most discouraging, however, is the technical execution of the musical aspects of this production. Hughes’s original production, and many subsequent reimaginations, give stark credence to the musical components so as to highlight the brilliant inimitability of the African-American community. What musical director J. Anthony Holmes delivers here is instead a disservice to the artform—a pedestrian approach toward an already simplified collection of scores. While the vocal performances from the cast are, for the most part, decent and solid, the musical accompaniment from the three-piece band is just a hair above phoned-in. The foundation they provide for the players is consistently tenuous and unenergetic, particularly throughout the more original first half.
As a black man, I hate to see such an institutional work of art given so little care and attention. The disconcerting implications as a result are that the core message of Hughes’ entire body of work has lost its relevance to the community.
As a black artist, I hate to see other artists committed to the bastardization of an important work with so much potential. The cast of BATC’s Black Nativity do well to deliver the material they’ve been given; it’s just a shame that that material has not been fully realized or creatively thought out.
My hope is that the cast, musicians, and creative leadership of this show have a chance to come together and recalibrate their approach before the end of the run. If they can sharpen up the musical numbers and commit more artistry to the dramatic progression, then they might have a lovely and truly captivating production on their hands—one of which Hughes would be thoroughly proud.