Each year, the Black Theatre Troupe brings the community together to share in an evening of music and holiday cheer as part of its production of “Black Nativity.”
This year, the theater company presents the Langston Hughes piece from Friday, December 6, to Sunday, December 22, at the Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center.
Making its debut in New York in 1961, “Black Nativity” tells the story of Jesus’ birth with a cast of African-American actors, singers and dancers. In 2013, the show was made into a film starring Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker and Jennifer Hudson.
Walter Belcher, director of the Black Theatre Troupe’s production, says the show is reflects the author and is poetic in its movements and music.
“It has its own fluidity and its own iambic pentameter that are seen in the rhythms of the dancers, that are seen in the rhythm of the music. It’s all connected in a very poetic way,” Belcher says.
The show uses dance, music, drumbeats and spoken word to tell the story and interweaves different styles of music, including gospel songs, traditional Christmas carols and spirituals.
Audiences can expect to hear favorites such as “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” The first act is very traditional and stays true to the show’s origins while the second act is adapted each year to incorporate contemporary gospel music.
“We don’t change the story, but it is through an African-American lens, letting gospel music be the vehicle that tells that story,” Belcher says.
Many of the gospels in the second act are celebratory and weave the nativity story into a workshop scene. During this second act, the troupe will present characters that represent real people in the church setting. Audiences will see familiar characters such as a strong-willed mother with a muscular singing voice, who mouths verses of Scripture along with the pastor.
“We are looking at ways to lean into some of the humor and add some brevity to a poignant story,” Belcher says.
Belcher says the show appeals to audiences who observe Christmas in different ways because of its powerful music.
“In general, music transcends culture and language. That’s not just gospel music. That’s any music. Music, it brings the world together in wonderful ways,” Belcher says.
This year, local performers Alexander Patrick, Shaniece Brazwell and Brittney Johnson will play the main roles of Joseph, Mary and the Angel, respectively.
Mary and Joseph are nonspeaking parts that require the actors to tell the story through dance and movement.
The 25-member cast is made up of people of different ages, including youth ages 8 to 13. In certain moments of show, these youth will be featured in singing and dancing roles. Gospel singers from local churches have helped to choose music for and will perform in the show.
Music director Brenda Hankins says a mix of returning and new singers will help to convey the show’s uplifting message of hope, joy and redemption.
“We have some very gifted and talented people. It’s always fun to see them coming out to audition, see who is going to be in the show and see what they bring to the presentation,” Hankins says.
This is Hankins’ first time as musical director for “Black Nativity.” She has been working with Jennifer Robinson and George Johnson, who have been part of the production for a number of years.
She says the show is different because it doesn’t have a traditional score. The singers learn the music by rote.
Hankins says to convey the emotion behind the music, it is important for the singers to understand its message. She hopes audiences take something away from the music as well.
“When a person really opens himself up or herself up to really receive that message, it can be a great source of inspiration,” Hankins says.
Black Theatre Troupe’s Production of “Black Nativity”
Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center, 1333 E. Washington Street, Phoenix, new-wp.blacktheatretroupe.org, Friday, December 6, to Sunday, December 22, tickets start at $41.