Engage & Learn

The Soul, Song and Dance of The Nativity

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

The Nativity tells its story with more than speech alone. This holiday classic comes to life in song and dance. Langston Hughes, a prominent African American author of poetry and fiction, drew his inspiration for this gospel play from his environment of the thriving Harlem Renaissance, as well as from rich storytelling traditions of Gospel. Below are articles shedding light on the context and historical background of Hughes’ vibrant creation.

The Harlem Renaissance defines the movement, as well as highlights main names and events from the time, while Chicago Pilgrims details the history of Gospel as a movement and it’s history in Chicago, with Unspoken chronically the presence and evolution of dance with gospel music.

The Harlem Renaissance


It’s impossible to gain a full appreciation for Langston Hughes’ impact on the literary world without an understanding of the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance—named for its origins in the predominantly black Harlem neighborhood of New York City—occurred in the early 1920s. It was an explosion of black culture, literature, art and music, and many of the most prolific black writers of the early 20th century were directly involved.

Langston Hughes with other African American writers of his time. Courtesy of Photographic Services and Permissions, The New York Public Library.

The Renaissance, or cultural rebirth, was not defined by common literary style or political ideology, but it included visual arts as well as poetry, essays, fiction and drama. Black visual artists produced works in sculpture, painting, graphic design and printmaking. Still other artists produced theater and music in jazz, blues and spirituals. Despite the lack of a unified voice, all of its artists were committed to truthful artistic expression of the African American experience. Some of the most famous writers to come out of the Renaissance were Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Jessie Fauset, Gwendolyn Bennett, Claude McKay and the renowned W.E.B. DuBois. Many of these artists wrote poetry and plays as well as fiction and articles. The movement’s artists often met at each others’ homes and collaborated on various written, visual and musical projects. According to philosopher Alain Locke, this was the manifestation of the coming of age of the “New Negro.”

The effects of the Harlem Renaissance continued into the Great Depression. The Depression saw another wave of black literacy and expression throughout the country, partly because of the artistic need to express the immense struggles of black Americans during this time. During the Depression, about half of all black families relied on government aid. Many African American writers and artists such as Richard Wright, Willard Motley, William Attaway, Frank Davis and Margaret Burroughs offered nuanced impressions of black urban life, and Gwendolyn Brooks gave a poetic voice to everyday black Chicagoans.

As mentioned before, the explosion of musical styles characterized the Renaissance as much as its visual arts and writing. Some of the most notable contributions of the movement include the proliferation of jazz through such musicians as Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Jazz and blues were popular among both blacks and whites across almost the entire country, but one musical genre can be attributed entirely to Chicago: Gospel.

Chicago Pilgrims


Gospel music plays a large role in Langston Hughes’ work. Black Nativity and Tambourines to Glory were written for the stage to allow for a celebration of all the gospel music Hughes included within the text. Gospel’s origins as a musical form can be traced back to the “Negro spirituals” and work songs of oppressed African American slaves in the late 18th century through the 19th century.

Kehilath Anshe Ma’ariv Synagogue (now Pilgrim Baptist Church), 3301 South Indiana Avenue, Chicago, Cook County, IL - north and west (front) sides. Courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress.

Black spirituals and work songs, while very religious and based heavily in Biblical texts, usually had a double meaning. They combined themes of a Christian belief in life after death and the idea of Heaven with the longing for freedom from slavery and segregation. Originally, the worship service was one of the few places white “masters” could openly monitor slaves—and no more than a few slaves were allowed to gather at once without white supervision. As a result, black slaves often attended worship with the masters. Through their attendance of church services, many slaves grew in their understanding of the role music played in their spirituality and relationship to their circumstances. Through a process of adaptation and reappropriation of the traditional white themes, black slaves created new versions of classic hymns. These were influenced by New World Christian practices as well as musical traditions from various African heritages. Much of this they did through secret “camp meetings”—illegal large gatherings done outside of a church service in which participants interpreted hymns in a way that made the music relevant to them personally. Group hymns were characterized by physicality—clapping, dancing and other body movements were just as important as the singing—and involved participants standing in large circles or groups. Thus black spirituals were born.

One of the characteristic elements of black spirituals was call and response, in which the congregation or choir offered a musical reply to something sung by the choral leader. In this style, beliefs were reinforced through direct participation—if the recipient of a musical call agreed with the message, he or she would give an enthusiastic response. This tradition has carried through to today and is still a defining musical characteristic of gospel.

During the Civil War, as the wartime climate directly affected the lives of slaves, themes of escape and freedom became even more determined in black spirituals. Many claim that some of these spirituals made use of coded messages for runaway slaves. After the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, black interpretations of religious music became so popular that white Christians adopted some of their music.

As the musical form developed, new African American colleges were economically unable and unwilling to adopt many aspects of the Euro American worship music, namely organs and hymn books. These were not only financially unavailable, but symbols of white attempts at “civilizing.” Black students and musicians developed the music through choral arrangements and the use of physical percussion and an a cappella style. It wasn’t until later that instruments were introduced—drums, piano and guitar among them. Other instruments, such as the electric organ, were later introduced in modern gospel.

Harlem Gospel Choir at concert in Toru?, Poland. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Modern gospel music as we know it was created and popularized in Chicago, the unofficial “Home of Gospel Music.” In the first half of the 20th century, great changes brought gospel music out of the churches and to the country at-large. Thomas A. Dorsey, a Chicago jazz musician, receives much of the credit for popularizing and giving the form a contemporary vibe. Born in Georgia in 1899, he was torn between religious and secular pursuits from an early age. He was introduced to blues and jazz music through the black community and vaudeville theater, and he became passionate about them. Dorsey moved to Chicago during World War I and joined the Pilgrim Baptist Church on the South Side. His musical career took off. After studying at the Chicago College of Composition and Arranging, he began to play in speakeasies and other venues around the city with other jazz and blues musicians, including the famous Ma Rainey and her band. But Pilgrim Baptist would come to serve as his most important musical venue.

Dorsey became widely known for his skills as a pianist and singer. In the process, however, he pushed himself too far. After a return home and a series of nervous breakdowns, he turned his attention to religious music. His music was unwelcome in most mainstream churches, and it was after he lost both his wife and son to childbirth that he turned to the piano and began writing the music that would reinvent the form. He felt that his religious music came to him from God. He co-founded the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses and later teamed with Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke, James Cleveland, Roberta Martin and others to usher in what became known as the “Golden Age of Gospel Music.” Mahalia Jackson had plenty of her own accomplishments independent of Dorsey, including being designated as the first gospel singer to host and star in her first CBS radio program and singing prior to Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Pilgrim Baptist Church served as their Chicago home, nurturing their careers and providing support as well as musical resources. As Dorsey was named the Father of Modern Gospel Music, Jackson was dubbed the World’s Greatest Gospel Singer.

Their accomplishments inspired black musicians all over the city and the nation. In the following decades, other gospel musicians and gospel ensembles began to appear and travel around the country. Black performers were broadcast on radio throughout the ’40s and ’50s, and retained a prominence in black Pentecostal and Baptist churches. Despite hardships suffered by many gospel singers, gospel grew to influence soul, Motown of the ’60s and ’70s, and music of religious services for white and black Americans alike.



What action occurs without a word? Fox trot, boogie, swing, flamingo, salsa, free style, jazz, tap, step, hip-hop, ballet—no matter the name, the five letters remain the same: dance. Born of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity showcases a trinity of performing arts that highlights the beauty of language, voice and, perhaps most distinctly, the elegance and freedom of movement. Central to the story in Congo Square’s production, Mary and Joseph refrain from speech, yet the two narrate volumes through breathtaking choreography. Many may wonder why Hughes chose to deliberately mix in these silent characters into his otherwise verbally vivid world. The answer lies in the history of this gospel play.

Ke-Nako musical/dance performance in Vienna, Austria. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In the framework of religious practices, dance goes with gospel as kites go with string. Historically, rarely is one medium found without the other. Dance in this context, sometimes referred to as Praise Dance, shares a parallel history with modern gospel. Many of the traditional dance movements came to be during the worship services on plantations in the antebellum (pre-Civil War) south. These dance movements, linking back to African storytelling traditions, brought an enriching and inspiring facet to the already powerful gospel lyrics. In the same vein as the songs that spoke of freedom and strength in perseverance, the dances embodied both rebellion and a strengthening of community. For example, the practice of stomping out a rhythm took the place of traditional drums, which slave owners banned. The power of community was also present in these dances, as many incorporated all of the members of a worship service. Even in the face of adversity, these dances kept alive storytelling traditions while also rejuvenating and inspiring those living without their freedom.

Years after the abolishment of slavery, 1920s America was still a European-centric hub for mediums artistic, literary and otherwise. The Harlem Renaissance brought forth a vibrant presence of the African American community in poetry, literature, song and dance. Hughes, a figurehead of this time, incorporated into Black Nativity the practice of what was already a living element of this blossoming artistic movement. Like other aspects of the Harlem Renaissance, dance held its own unique space as a blend of African, European and classical styles. This bold new art form, with a history steeped in tradition of spirituals and revivals, was again a source of inspiration and a method to administer social change.

In Black Nativity, Hughes masterfully weaves in a silence that speaks beyond language. Modern adaptations, such as Congo Squares’ The Nativity, retain this element of dance. Similarly to other updated references in the text, the choreography for Mary and Joseph alters from performance to performance. For instance, Joesph’s blend of modern and gymnastic style movements in ‘You Didn’t Wait’ are unique to this Congo Square production. Other productions will highlight different forms of choreography, usually in relation to the background of the choreographer and dancers. Despite changes, the movements of these characters remain striking and add another layer of storytelling onto the already rich spoken and sung text. Modern gospel likewise retains versions of Praise Dance. Step dance, or Stepping, functions as a dance paired to today’s gospel. Some may shout for joy, others will belt out a melody, but in this production of The Nativity, celebration may require no words at all.