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Joy to the world

The nativity story returns to its African roots in ‘Unto This House: The King of Kings is Born’

Celina Colby
Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Joy to the world
Joe Gonzalez as Joseph in “Unto This House: The King of Kings is Born.” photo: courtesy the Witherspoon Institute and Madison Park Development Corporation

“Unto This House: The King of Kings is Born,” a production by Boston playwright Alda Marshall Witherspoon, debuts at Hibernian Hall through Dec. 16. Co-presented by the Witherspoon Institute and Madison Park Development Corporation, the vibrant play uses dance, song, puppetry and passion to retell the nativity story with an emphasis on African culture.

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The show was born three years ago when Witherspoon produced a shorter version of it for her church. Her pastor was so impressed, he insisted afterward that the show be expanded and brought to the public. The community came together to make the show a reality. The current iteration features new choreography by Jo-Mé Dance in Hyde Park and six new songs. “I do a large focus on the atmosphere in which the birth happened,” says Witherspoon. “I do it from the perspective of the African diaspora.”

A modern tale

Witherspoon also has updated the story for a contemporary audience by adding more female characters. She includes the story of Elizabeth, the Virgin Mary’s cousin, who was blessed with a child despite her advanced age and previous inability to conceive. “Not a lot of women’s voices are heard in the Bible, so I tried to bring those to the forefront,” Witherspoon says. She also created a completely new character, the Sphynx, who acts as voice of good and reason to King Herod.

Rebecca Zama as the Sphynx in “Unto This House: The King of Kings is Born.” photo: courtesy the Witherspoon Institute and Madison Park Development Corporation

Rebecca Zama as the Sphynx in “Unto This House: The King of Kings is Born.” photo: courtesy the Witherspoon Institute and Madison Park Development Corporation

Rebecca Zama, who plays the Sphynx, says, “We’re a hub of diversity in Boston and a lot of the time depictions of the nativity almost whitewash the story. We’re telling it so that it’s inclusive of the diverse reality of the time it’s set in.”

The production was a community effort. Witherspoon, who has worked in the arts for decades, drew on contacts from all areas of expertise to make the production a reality. “I tried to bring in a whole host of community people to make sure that, not only is it artistically sound, but that the community is involved,” she says.

Most of all, Witherspoon hopes to bring the joy of the holidays to the audiences. By including so many different artistic styles, she opens up the doors for people of all ages, backgrounds and tastes to enjoy the production. “I have this wide spectrum of arts background, and I like to bring it all together. I want the audience to always be engaged,” she says. “I think this, at the core, is about the heart. I tell stories of love.”

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