Dallas — The cast had probably been directed to simply stand and deliver the song, “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” allowing the strength of the music to provide everything needed. They complied, except for one actor in the back that ever so smoothly fell into the gospel lean, and one actress closer to the front whose bare toes moved up and down to the beat. It’s hard to remain still during good gospel music.
TeCo Theatrical Productions opened its 10th presentation of Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity on Friday. In case anyone is thinking of skipping this one, assuming “oh well, it’s the same one they did last year,” that would be a mistake. Each year a different director is invited to revivify this Gospel-Song-Play. This season Jiles King (Chief Executive Director of The Black Academy of Arts and Letters, Inc. /TBAAL) accepted the invitation, and partnered with musical director Robert Jimmerson to design and shape the production. Therefore, this year’s iteration is different just as will be every upcoming season, which is exactly what Langston Hughes intended.
Black Nativity was for Langston Hughes a different way of trying to get his stories about the African-American experience onto the Broadway stage. He had struggled to reach wider audiences with his dramas and poems, so it was his hope that Black Nativity would break through. It did.
As Hughes conceived it, Black Nativity (originally titled What a Mighty Day) combined pantomime, dance, song and dialogue from the African-American experience to tell the story of the birth of Jesus but through a contemporary perspective. The first act entitled “The Child is Born” presents the traditional nativity story through African-American language and song. The second act entitled “The Word is Spread” is intended to demonstrate how the story of Christ’s birth remains vibrant and relevant in the modern era.
Hughes understood that using gospel music to bind a story in this way for Broadway was not only different, but chancy, as was his decision to employ gospel singers to perform. As a result of Hughes’ decision to incorporate music from the public domain, there is no original musical score for this work. Each production of Black Nativity employs different songs mixed in with some of the traditional holiday standards. In this way the show refreshes each time, widening opportunities for connections with modern audiences.
The initial performance in New York City was accomplished with only six gospel singers accompanied by a pianist and an organist playing a Hammond B3. But in December 1961, the play was produced on Broadway at the 41st St. Theatre under the direction of Vinnette Carroll. Two years earlier, Carroll had appeared as the Narrator in a London Criterion production of the play. Howard Sanders was the narrator in the 1961 Broadway performance. Dancers were Clive Thompson, Cleo Quitman, and Carl Ford with choreography by Louis Jordan. The Broadway cast included very prominent successful gospel performers, Marion Williams & The Stars of Faith, Princess Stewart, and Professor Alex Bradford and The Bradford Singers. Fortunately, the cast recording of that original Broadway production remains, the only one in existence.
There have been many interpretations of this piece (including a film), contemporizing it in a variety of ways, some more successfully than others. King has kept the TeCo production simple and smart, returning to and honoring the original intent of the piece. Fittingly, this production begins and ends with a child struggling to tell the Christ child’s story through song. The set for act one adheres to the original script, a platform of various levels. Hughes specified moods: reverence, awe, joy and jubilation. These are largely achieved through lighting and costumes. The rich colors of Lindsay Humphries’ costumes seem to glow under Jack Piland’s lighting.
For act two, King selected the most traditional space in the African-American experience for spreading the word: the church. The stage arrangement is presentational, but so is the act so it is a match. Personalities bubble up during act two, bringing in that everyday experience about which Hughes wrote so passionately. Audience members that are familiar with church—in particular with what is lovingly referred to as “the Black church” experience, will undoubtedly smile and relate fondly to the flickering backstories sprinkled in with all of that prescribed reverence and jubilation.
Like the original Broadway cast, this one is a cluster of strong voices and less confident voices, as is the case in many church choirs. There were powerful moments and a couple of ‘ahem’ moments, again, much like what happens in many church choirs. Jimmerson’s musical arrangements are designed to complement the actors’ levels, enabling them to sing comfortably and joyfully. Deon Q Sanders is a lyrical soprano. Her stylings of “Who Would Imagine a King” and “Changed” were delicate, lovely and heartfelt. The younger performers in this production are delightfully good. Also notable were Brandon Wilhelm’s renditions of “Mary Did You Know” and “Lord, Do It” and Denise Baker’s “Holy.” The closing ensemble number, “Total Praise,” was embracing.
King and Jimmerson approached this telling of the Christ’s story as coming from the voices of ordinary people. Not rock stars. Just people moved by the spirit. What gushes forth from the stage is a sweet sincerity that for a Christmas production, works.