Dallas — Langston Hughes was well established as a poet, novelist and playwright by 1961, when his Black Nativity debuted off-Broadway, becoming one of the first works by an African-American to play in that arena. It was two years after Lorraine Hansberry’s play with a Hughes-inspired title, A Raisin in the Sun, broke boundaries on the Great White Way.
Hughes designed Black Nativity to use traditional carols and more contemporary music with gospel flair, and in many cities, including Boston and Atlanta, Black Nativity is as regular a site at Christmastime as are A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker. It’s becoming a staple in Dallas, too, with the 12th annual production at Bishop Arts Theatre Center, this year helmed by returning director Jiles R. King, II. Steven Taylor is the musical director, and Zebretta Johnson the choreographer.
Although some productions of Black Nativity stay the same every year, at BATC, you’re likely to see a different version each time. This year, King appears to have been inspired by the Stephen Schwartz musical Godspell.
The 2017 Black Nativity begins with the song “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” (from Godspell), and Tina Washington’s costumes echo many productions of Godspell, using a base of contemporary street clothes with whimsical or period-evoking embellishments. It has the ragtag feel of Schwartz’s musical, in which a group of folks come together to sing and tell their story.
In this case, the first act is about the birth of Christ, with Mary (Brittany Jackson) and Joseph (Lamar Lacy) looking for a place to spend the night, and ending up in a stable, visited by magi, shepherds and angels. The multi-level set with a staircase on each side allows for the actors to easily create small structures for certain scenes as the cast sings “O Holy Night,” “Joy to the World,” “Christ is Born,” and although it’s not credited in the program, “Mary, Did You Know?”
In the second act, the Bible story gives way to the place where Bible stories are a weekly lesson: The Church. The cast mostly sings more contemporary gospel songs, including “Amazing,” “I Believe,” and “Let the Church Say Amen.”
In addition to Jackson and Lacy, the cast features Tiana Alexander, Brandon Wilhelm, Lydia Brown, Rhonda Francis, Ja’Quoi Griffin, Octavian Lewis, Asia Moné, Gustavo Perez, Sholonda Robinson, Jasmine West, Jendayi Harris, MyLisa Mitchell, and Kai Turner.
Johnson’s choreography uses some African movement and praise dance, and doesn’t get in the way of the storytelling.
There are some standout vocals, such as from Tiana Alexander on “You Rescued Me” and Rhonda Francis on “Holy”; but there are also some not-quite-as-polished voices that become problematic when not mixed in with the larger ensemble. It was hard to hear Ja’Quoi Griffin, who had several featured sections, at the performance reviewed.
Vocals improved in the second act, which has more ensemble numbers. Call-and-response and jubilant gospel singing made the BATC auditorium feel like church. For the Christmas story, that seems perfect.