The message of the production of Black Nativity that is currently playing at Anacostia Playhouse is clearly stated in the words of the gospel composition by Edwin Hawkins: “Jesus Christ Is the Way.” During the second act (or more aptly, the testimony service portion) of this production one fervent celebrant testified: “Talking about religion will make you lose your faith.” This could lead to satisfying liturgy and a satisfying gospel concert. I am not so sure about it as a basis for satisfying theater.
You can disagree over what you think this show is about and what messages you think this show works best with. For example, originally entitled Wasn’t It a Might Day?, the original cast in 1961 included Carmen de Lavallade and Alvin Ailey, both whom left the off-Broadway production prior to its opening, over a disagreement with the title change to Black Nativity. (Wikipedia). The use of the word “Black” to identify people of African heritage was controversial in 1961. The Black Panthers did not exist, yet. Black Power had not been popularly articulated, yet. Black is Beautiful was not a thing, yet. James Brown had not yet recorded “Say It Loud. I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Calling someone Black to their face could get you killed.
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The original structure that Langston Hughes outlined for Black Nativity is apparent mainly in the first act of this production, while the second act has been reshaped into what seems more like a straight-ahead testimony service presenting stories of lives transformed by a belief in Jesus. The 1961 recording of the original production reflects a show in which the songs that were used were gospel arrangements of spirituals that were supplemented by European carols. In Singing in the African American Tradition, George Brandon, a workshop collaborator with Ysaye Maria Barnwell of Sweet Honey in the Rock, notes that spirituals are songs that were produced by the collective. They were produced during slavery and they articulated and distilled what W. E. B. DuBois called the Souls of Black Folk: that essence of being of Black Folk that the slaveholders and their culture denied. That collectivity of the spirituals is reflected in the staging of the first act. The current second act testimony service is underscored by contemporary gospel and some gospel arrangements of hymns. Gospels are composed after slavery often by known, individual composers. The staging of the second act reflects that individual acceptance of belief in Jesus Christ.
Stage wise: the set is workable. In the second act, the singing of gospel music underscores scenarios of modern Black urban life and struggle, that are performed in sincere, energetic and enthusiastic but disappointingly rudimentary pantomime.
But then there IS the singing. We should pause here. You must understand that the singing – what is brought to the process of the singing and what the singing brings forth in the singer and the audience/congregation – is what this show is and always has been about. Let’s refer to James Baldwin (whose Amen Corner we will be able to see later this year at The Shakespeare Theatre) “[A Black person] can sing gospel as no other [person] can because [he isn’t] singing gospel.. He [is] not singing about a road in Egypt two thousand years ago, but about his mama and his daddy and himself, and those streets ..just outside of every door, ..which you and I both walk and which we are going to walk until we meet. Our suffering is our bridge to one another. Everyone must cross this bridge, or die while he still lives.”
This singing and this music is exactly what people of African heritage in the USA can do that no other group of people in the world can. Others can imitate this. But this music and the way it is articulated in this place, is an original artifact of a people that identifies them in the uniqueness of their humanity and their divinity.
Black Nativity closes January 5, 2020. DCTS details and tickets
This uniquely American conjuration of our common humanity through AfroAmerican singing is the strength of this show and the reason why Anacostia Playhouse might want to consider bringing some iteration of Black Nativity back next year. And the year after that.
Black Nativity. Book by Langston Hughes. Directed by Stephawn Stephens. Musical Direction by William Knowles. Choreography by Rodni Williams. Cast: Catrina Brenae, Kendall Claxton, David Hammett, Jacquelyn Hawkins, LaSharon Johnson, Andre Mckamey, Marcel Miller, Tre’mon K. Mills, Michael Nesbitt-Gaines, Sherice Payne, Fashad Tyler, Shawna Williams, Kara Harrison (understudy). Musicians, William Knowles. Tony Addison. Yusef Chisholm. Musical Consultant, Michael Terry. Produced by Anacostia Playhouse . Reviewed by Gregory Ford.
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