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The Many Re-Births Of ‘Black Nativity’

ed smitheditDirector Ed Smith at the Bishop Arts Theatre in Oak Cliff. All photos by Jerome Weeks

Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity became a Hollywood movie this year, but it’s long been a holiday stage tradition. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports, you can see how the film updates Hughes’ play, but you can also see how it’s been updated at the Bishop Arts Theatre in Oak Cliff.

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When the film version of Black Nativity was released in late November, quite a few critics complained about the changes screenwriter-director Kasi Lemons made to Hughes’ gospel play. Poet Langston Hughes came out of the Harlem Renaissance in the ’30s, and went on to write plays, musicals, even opera librettos. In a nod to that background, the film is set in Harlem, and a major character is named Langston. Other than that, this is mostly a Hollywood treatment, with Lemons adding a whole new storyline about a troubled adolescent and his preacher-grandfather, played by Forest Whittaker. The music is updated as well, with stars Jennifer Hudson and Mary J. Blige bringing in their mix of gospel, Broadway and r&b.

Whether all of these changes work or not, the fact is re-shaping Black Nativity pretty much is the holiday tradition. Teresa Coleman Wash is executive artistic director of TeCo Theatrical Productions, which is presenting its seventh version of Black Nativity at the Bishop Arts Theatre. Wash notes that A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker get re-worked all the time, too. That’s how traditions stay fresh. One year, TeCo staged a jazz version — which certainly fits with the many jazz concerts it also presents — while last year saw a more ‘true-to-form traditional’ show, she says.

theresa washeditWe know it’s a holiday tradition for our audience,” Wash says, “and I think that they expect something new and different. So that’s what we try to do.”

In fact, in 1961, Hughes originally wrote Black Nativity as a loose blueprint, originally titled What A Mighty Day It Was (after the gospel song of the same name). Changing the name to Black Nativity (among other edits) lost Hughes a young dancer named Alvin Ailey, who objected to the way the new title pigeonholed the show as a “minority” play. The first act re-tells the story of Jesus’ birth using dance, gospel music and African drumming. The weaker second act is mostly preaching and more gospel standards like “Go, Tell It on The Mountain.”

And when Black Nativity debuted off-Broadway with only six singers plus a piano and Hammond organ, it lasted for a brief run of 57 performances. Nevertheless, over time, the show’s gospel-choir power and its  pageant-like simplicity have worked to keep it popular — it permits many additions and interpretations. One Boston theater has staged Black Nativity every year since 1969.

At the Bishop Arts Theater, Ed Smith is directing TeCo Productions’ Black Nativity with a cast of sixteen. “The first act is such a wonderful piece,” he says, “but the second act is church. That’s our culture, and I’m not knocking it in that sense. But I had no desire to take people to church. Mostly, theaters do the first act, and they’ll change it around in the second act. And that’s what I’m doing.”

A teacher at TCU, Smith ran Fort Worth’s Jubilee Theatre for several years. In a career that’s seem him as the associate artistic director of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Smith has staged more than 100 productions.  But this is his first Black Nativity. Smith thinks he’s found a way to handle that second act. The performers now go to a friend’s Christmas party.

“The person who’s having the party, they say, well look, we need to do something for our ancestors. Everyone will have to bring in a quote from one of Langston Hughes’ poems before we can eat, drink or sing. So I thought that might be a good getaway.”

In addition to his career in theater, Smith spent many years hosting a jazz program on a Buffalo radio station, so he was particularly interested in how the songs would be handled by music director Michael Hubbard. Music and dance, he says, that’s what makes the show work — “It’s really a musical.”

So the question for TeCo now becomes: Will the new film of Black Nativity cut into the audience for TeCo’s own updated version? Wash  doesn’t even blink: “People who come to the theater really like the live experience. So I don’t see the movie as competition. I see it more as added publicity.”

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Jennitha Washington, David Counts, Ever Cobourn, Doris Black-Hubbard, James Adams amd Gwinevere Nelson rehearsing Black Nativity