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History of a Production

Playbill cover for Congo Square’s 2010 production of The Nativity. Courtesy of Congo Square.

Black Nativity is a production with a vast history of incarnations and adaptations, produced year after year for the holiday season in theatres across the country. Congo Square began producing different interpretations of this classic text several years ago, but they were not the first. Below is the beginning of the original version, Black Nativity, from the text by Langston Hughes:


Langston Hughes’ The Nativity

(Prelude: Organ music. Voices are heard offstage as MAN and WOMAN enter.)

WOMAN

JOY TO THE WORLD!

THE LORD HAS COME -

LET EARTH RECEIVE HER KING.

LET EVERY HEART PREPARE HIS ROOM.

MAN

LET HEAVEN AND NATURE SING.

(Pilgrims enter down aisles to join WOMAN and MAN on stage.)

SINGERS

JOY TO THE WORLD!

THE LORD HAS COME –

LET EARTH RECEIVE HER KING.

(Light spots NARRATOR at side of stage.)

NARRATOR: IT CAME TO PASS IN THOSE DAYS, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria. And all went to be taxed, everyone into his own city.

(The sunset lights left stage as MARY and JOSEPH enter.)

And Joseph also went up from Galilee to be taxed – out of the city of Nazareth into Judea, unto the city of David which is called Bethlehem – with his wife, Mary, being great with child… “I think – oh, Joseph – I think my time’s most come.”

Black Nativity Through Time

BY TERESA RENDE

Production photo from Black Nativity. Photo courtesy of the Intiman Theatre, by Chris Bennion.

It was on Dec. 11, 1961, that the first production of Black Nativity was performed. The show, written by Langston Hughes, was a celebration of more than just Christmas. Black Nativity celebrated what happened in Bethlehem some 2,000 years prior with a distinctly African American flavor, bringing to light to not only the story of baby Jesus, but the beauty of gospel music and the genius of Hughes.

The 1961 production debuted at New York City’s 41st Street Theater off-Broadway and ran for 57 performances. Not a traditional Christmas play, this work was suited for the Broadway scene thanks to its unique melding of scripture, verse, music and dance. It featured a completely black cast, comprised of a large gospel choir, soloists, a narrator and, of course, Mary and Joseph. Despite being a well-known agnostic, Hughes’ interest in African American cultural practices and the history of gospel was strong. As such, this multifaceted song-play reflected Hughes’ intrigue in African American spirituality and religious oral traditions. By combining the story of the nativity with a gospel choir, Hughes reflected the Christmas story while also demonstrating the contemporary methods of celebrating it.

Famous dancers Carmen de Lavellade and Alvin Ailey, the stars that left Black Nativity. Photo courtesy of Jet Magazine.

Though now well known as Black Nativity, the path to this iconic title was not without its hiccups. The original name for this play was Wasn’t It a Mighty Day? Alvin Ailey, a blooming choreographer and artistic director, was a part of the original off-Broadway cast with friend and modern dance colleague, Carmen de Lavallade. Unfortunately, both talented dancers left the show before opening because of the title shift from Wasn’t it a Mighty Day? to Black Nativity. Both are believed to have left because they felt the use of the word “black” in the title of an off-Broadway play was too controversial a choice, particularly for such a harmonious show.

It was in 1969 that Black Nativity found one of its permanent homes. The production was staged by the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Boston, Massachusetts. Since then, the NCAAA has done the production every single year, making it the longest running production of Black Nativity in the world! Now Black Nativity is a common holiday season production across America. Recurring productions are regularly staged in Washington D.C., Atlanta, Columbus and Chicago—just to name a few. The Intiman Theatre in Seattle celebrates its 12th annual production of Black Nativity this Christmas season. Although the spirit remains the same, the modernization of this piece is clear, with Intiman describing the production as follows: “[Black Nativity:] Featuring the poetry of Langston Hughes, gravity-defying choreography by Spectrum Dance’s Donald Byrd, Pastor Patrinell Wright and her choir of gospel singers, and that rockin’ live band!”

Modernizations and adaptations of Hughes’ original script are not isolated. This year’s Congo Square production of The Nativity represents one such derivation from the original text. Congo Square’s production is, in fact, known for its unique variations. Starting in 2004, Congo Square produced Black Nativity at Goodman Theatre, then followed this with another performance of the play in 2005. By 2007, however, Congo Square made some big changes, bringing a global context to Black Nativity. Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones describes the production as such: “…they globalized the ‘Black Nativity’ by setting the entire thing in the Darfur region of Western Sudan, introducing a note of geopolitical urgency that was, to my mind, entirely in keeping with the spirit of the Hughes piece.” Since this production, Congo Square has brought in playwright McKinley Johnson to adapt the script again. The Nativity first opened at Chicago Center for the Performing Arts and comes back to The Goodman for Christmas 2010. This new production features original songs as well as some very timely references to present-day America.

Kathleen Purcell Turner and Pierre Clark. Photo courtesy of Congo Square.

Although Black Nativity is only a 49-year-old show, it has come to be a holiday classic. It showcases a variety of African American arts, with the word of the great Langston Hughes, the history and beauty of gospel and the grace of dance. The classic production continues to be performed in professional theaters, as well as in universities, schools and churches across America. As the legacy of this production grows, it also remains timeless, with theater companies finding new ways to adapt and transform the work to celebrate African American artists and culture today. In the tradition of Hughes, companies such as Congo Square even go so far as to bring light to some of the inequities suffered by people across the globe. Whether you prefer the original work or one of the many new adaptations, there is no question that this production is one that will continue to grow while also remaining a classic.

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