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‘Black Nativity’ turns 50

National Center of Afro-American Artists celebrates production’s half-century milestone

Celina Colby
Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
‘Black Nativity’ turns 50
PHOTO: COURTESY NCAAA

This year, The National Center of Afro-American Artists (NCAAA)’s annual production of “Black Nativity,” one of the longest running in the country, celebrates 50 years on stage. Written by Langston Hughes, the performance tells the Nativity story through gospel music, dance and narration. Over the years the Boston performance has evolved into a community experience for all ages.

To celebrate the milestone anniversary, NCAAA will host a virtual gala on Dec. 18 featuring a reception, auction and the premiere of “Black Nativity: 50 Years of Triumph and Transition,” a film exploring the evolution of the production during the last half-century. The film will also be available for streaming on demand starting Dec. 19. Proceeds from both experiences will go toward NCAAA and future performances of “Black Nativity.”

“It’s locally produced, so it draws all of its talent from within Greater Boston,” says Edmund Barry Gaither, director and curator of the museum of the NCAAA in Roxbury. “We have at least a pair of performers who have been in every season since 1970.” Hughes’ original production was written for an adult gospel cast, but Boston’s community-based cast features performances by all ages, including baby Jesus, who’s played by different real and remarkably well-behaved infants every year.

Though the story may be as old as time, the production utilizes its foot-stomping gospel soundtrack, humorous anecdotes and innovative interpretive dance sequences to bring new life to the tale. “I like to think of it as having improvisation within tradition. It has an outline that does not change in important ways, but it has new voices all the time,” says Gaither.

Gaither estimates about one-third of the cast changes from year to year. Sometimes children who start out playing baby Jesus will grow into other roles over time, “Black Nativity” standing as a holiday hallmark in their childhood.

The dramatic revelatory pas de deux when Mary gives birth to the child on stage is also unique to the Boston production. The unscripted but emotionally powerful scene was dreamed up by the show’s original choreographer, George Howard, and has served as the apex of the production for its 50-year tenure.

Enjoyment is paramount, but Gaither hopes viewers also will draw strength from this year’s “Black Nativity” event and screening. After a challenging year, it’s a cathartic way to welcome 2021. He says, “We hope that people take fundamentally from the performance a sense of joy and dedication to the new year.”

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