The traditional nativity story of Mary, Joseph and Jesus is retold through song, dance and poetry by the Black Theatre Troupe from Friday, December 3, to Thursday, December 9, at the Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center.
The second show in the troupe’s 50th anniversary season, Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity” features new musical selection and text filled with dynamic gospel choruses, soloists and dance ensembles.
“Black Nativity” is directed by Walter Belcher with choreography by Alexander Patrick. The music staff boasts Brenda Hapkins, musical direction, and Jennifer Robinson and George Johnson as musical supervisors.
This will be Belcher’s fourth time directing the production in his over 15 years with the troupe.
“Every time I direct this show, it has lots of powerful things to unpack, even from a base level,” Belcher says. “It clearly has Christian connotations, so however you grew up there is just something around the music that is fun and heartwarming.”
The nearly two-hour show is split into two acts.
“Inherently, in the script, the first act is pretty much the same to its original connotation, but the second act is meant to be gospel music that is current and relevant in telling the story of where we are,” Belcher says about the production that was first produced in December 1961.
“The second act changes every year that we do it, unless there are some crowd favorites that we choose to keep. We kind of look at where we are in the world, and we build that second act accordingly.”
Belcher says most of the cast does not have an assigned role in the show.
“We of course have Mary, Joseph and an angel that are truly representing (those roles),” Belcher says.
“They are nonspoken roles, but everyone else is supposed to be themselves. They are supposed to be who they are, so they are not stepping into a character per se.”
The rest of the cast “represents the human experience” by sharing their stories.
“On a base level, there is just the enjoyment of coming to the theater and snapping and clapping along and hearing Christmas carols,” Belcher says.
“I think given where we are in the world and the last two years in the climate of the country, there is an even greater heightened sense of urgency around highlighting the African American experience. Instead of pushing people into the fact that Black lives matter, us celebrating ourselves in that way and us reaffirming those things (is important).”
A UA graduate, Belcher says that he is excited for the theater to reopen. He “totally sees the theater as a refuge” coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Theater across the world tried to do things virtually but quickly realized the magic of the theater exists because there is an in-person element,” Belcher says. “Artists didn’t quite have the same connection as others may have in going physical to virtual.
“For the Black Theatre Troupe, this season is really special because 2020 would have been our 50th year anniversary and so that joy, that celebration, that level of accomplishment to celebrate all of the hurdles and challenges before that (didn’t get to happen). Now being able to step back into what would have been that season definitely speaks to us being able to celebrate 50 years of accomplishments and even the theater surviving through COVID when so many other organizations didn’t.”
With nearly 20 directing years under his belt, there is one thing that stands out as Belcher’s favorite part about being the director for “Black Nativity.”
“My favorite part of the show is probably sitting in the audience or having a vantage point of seeing the audience and all of the diverse faces that come and clap and laugh and sing along,” Belcher says.
“I am aware that the Black American experience is inherently tied to our white brothers and sisters, to our Latino brothers too, to the LGBTQ community, to our main friends and family. It’s a collective thing, so to see so many diverse faces age-wise and just watch all of them in this place of celebration, it gives you hope.”
Belcher says he enjoys the audience becoming a part of the experience. Although he finds great joy in directing shows such as “Black Nativity,” sometimes it is difficult.
“I think one of the hardest parts of being a director is finding the purest form of honesty and truth and bringing that to the production,” Belcher says.
“How do we get actors to feel comfortable being vulnerable enough to share that truth and honesty? How do you — no pun intended — set the stage for the audience to hear and see that honesty and that truth in its purest form?” Belcher elaborates.
“Because you can say, ‘Oh, I’m just honest,’ but that always is followed by someone thinking they can be an inappropriate smart behind. It’s not about insulting or calling anybody out, it’s just about presenting the purest heartfelt level of truth and honesty no matter what.”
Belcher says that it doesn’t matter if the production is “The Book of Mormon” or “Charlotte’s Web,” finding and executing the honesty and truth within can be difficult on top of figuring out the appropriate “light and sound to accentuate it in the right way.”
He calls “Black Nativity “a wonderful safe space of community and unapologetic pride that exists in the cast of sharing their lived experience through gospel music.
“(The cast) all come with varied levels of experience on stage — some none, some of them tons — but what they generally all have in common is that they have grown up in the church, specifically in Black churches, and they come excited with enthusiasm about sharing that part of their lives. … Whether they go to the same church or they don’t, there is a commonality in their pride.”
WHEN: Various times between Friday, December 3, to Sunday December 19
WHERE: Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center, 1333 E. Washington Street, Phoenix