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`Black Nativity' Links the Gospel To Community

Langston Hughes's musical pageant brings an African-American perspective

IT'S hard to sit still. Music resonates through the darkened church as African-American gospel singers enter carrying lighted candles, and it gains momentum as the performers march up the aisles and balconies singing the traditional spiritual, "Go Tell It on the Mountain."

The energy emitted from this cast of 130 members of the local black community, including 75 children, quickly ignites the audience, and they respond enthusiastically with shouts and applause.

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This is the 23rd annual production of "Black Nativity," a song-play written by Langston Hughes. It retells the birth of Jesus through pageantry and gospel music. The music director for this production, John Andrew Ross, says Mr. Hughes wrote the script based on the gospel of St. Luke, outlining where he wanted a song but not giving stage directions or specifying how many people in the cast. Groups that produce "Black Nativity" put their own stamp on the play.

Mr. Ross, who says Hughes was a close friend of his family, explains that "Black Nativity" was originally written for black producer/director Vinette Carroll, who along with Hughes came out of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and '30s. It premiered at New York's Lincoln Center in the early '60s, according to Ross. "It's offered in a very black context. This is a gospel song-play and the music is framed in the tradition of black gospel."

Many of the performers are affiliated with local black churches, because that's the natural medium for this music, says Ross. It's not necessary to be black to participate in the production, and over the years whites who have had experience with black gospel have performed with them, he adds.

Ross compares "Black Nativity" to medieval passion plays, the most famous of which is performed each year in Oberammergau, Germany. The plays are built around the reenactment of Jesus' life, his passion and crucifixion, and typically include hundreds of performers and last many hours.

Besides Boston, church groups and organizations in other cities host their own "Black Nativity." This season, there are professional productions in Cleveland, Minneapolis, and San Diego, according to Dramatic Publishing Company in New York, which holds the rights to the script.

The gospel music is the most striking aspect of this song-play. The Boston singers are exceptional, but several soloists stand out, including tenor Larry Watson, bass Charles Austin (also a local television reporter), and dramatic soprano Vivian Cooley.

The music moves from joy to sadness, beginning with the announcement of the Christ Child's coming and continuing with Mary and Joseph's difficulties finding a room in Jerusalem. The search for lodging climaxes with "No Room," a melancholy melody sung with a blues inflection by Ms. Cooley.

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Hughes bridges the music with a narrator who speaks colloquially. The action of the story is told in pantomime, as Joseph, played by Born Bi-Kim Allah, dances athletically across the stage and mimes knocking on doors for help. He is joined by Mary, played by Margarita Taylor, to perform a modern, Afro-Caribbean dance that expresses their plight.

The music builds to a crescendo when three men's voices boom on center stage for "A Mighty Day" in honor of the child Jesus' birth.

The audience, on the afternoon I attended, was made up of an almost equal number of blacks and whites. Everyone swayed from side to side in their seats and clapped to the beat of the music. They yelled and applauded for more when "A Mighty Day" finished. The men returned, in mid-performance, for an encore, and the audience joined them in singing.

The bass, Mr. Austin, says the appeal of "Black Nativity" is that "We're not performing for the glory of ourselves, we're performing for God. The exhilaration comes when I look down at that child and say that is a wonderful child and that was a mighty day."

The performance ends with a young boy soulfully singing, "And little lord Jesus lay down his sweet head."

The children, including a bright-eyed, bare-footed baby Jesus, are a delightful feature of this production. They glow with the excitement of being on stage, and their joy and happiness enthralls the audience.

In an interview, executive producer and director Elma Lewis spoke about the history of "Black Nativity." Sitting in her den, surrounded by books on African culture and paintings of black dancers, she explains that "Black Nativity" began 23 years ago as a special performance for a few members of the black community at the Roxbury school that bears her name.

"The performance went over so well that we did it again the following year for members of the community, and it has since grown over the years until we serviced 20,000 [people]...."

Each fall, Lewis places an ad in local papers and holds auditions for "Black Nativity."

"The cast is a good cross section of what exists in black life," says Lewis. "There is no upper age limit, and we have many young children and teenagers coming from Boston Public Schools, private schools, and many of the surrounding suburbs. Nobody goes out to get them. They come." Many of the performers have been with the play for a number of years, and some have their young children join in when they're old enough.

Ms. Cooley, the soprano, has been singing in the production since its first year in Boston. She came into the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts in Roxbury one day with her twin baby boys. She and three others wanted to form a group to sing black music.

Music director Ross says, "One day they were rehearsing, and I heard this voice, this incredible voice coming through, and it was Vivian's." He asked them to participate in the first production of "Black Nativity." Even though Cooley has since moved from Roxbury to California, she returns each year to perform.

Both Ross and Lewis say that teaching children values and discipline that help them navigate life is most important to them. They say when children demonstrate their ability and the discipline it takes to perform on stage, they see a transformation in the character of these children, particularly the younger, more shy children.

"The whole experience has educational value. It's meant to give children depth of character and has something to do with an area we all value - spiritual value," says Ross.

Austin says of Lewis, "She is hard. It's theater, and she stresses discipline and focus.... It's great to work with her, and I hear her and understand the genesis of her conviction."

Ross and Lewis say the years they have staged "Black Nativity" have brought much joy and fulfillment. "And joy is the infallible sign of God's presence," Lewis says.

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