‘Black Nativity’ returns to the stage
Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity,” a joyful Boston holiday tradition, brings stirring vocals and community spirit to Emerson Paramount Center this month. Presented by the National Center of Afro-American Artists (NCAAA), the high-energy vocal performance tells the Nativity story through gospel music and biblical narration and features a dramatic and original pas de deux dance set to African drumming. Utilizing local residents of all experience levels, the “Black Nativity” production brings together the community in a unique way to ring in the holiday season.
“Ours is the longest continuously running production of ‘Black Nativity’ in the U.S.,” says Edmund Barry Gaither, director and curator of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists. “It’s locally produced, so it draws all of its talent from within Greater Boston. We have at least a pair of performers who have been in every season since 1970.”
Now in its 51st season, “Black Nativity” continues to utilize Langston Hughes’ production in a unique way. Unlike the original staging, the NCAAA version incorporates children into the show, including an infant baby Jesus who is born in the thrilling pas de deux that can only been seen in the Boston production. This is the show’s first return to the stage after COVID-19 shutdowns. In 2020, its 50-year anniversary was celebrated virtually. This year, a gala and auction of work by noted African, Caribbean and African American artists and designers will be held virtually to accompany the in-person show, which has two remaining performances on Dec. 18 and 19.
For the Boston community members performing “Black Nativity,” no extensive production resume is required. These are neighbors and loved ones who feel moved enough to sing about the season, and many of them come back year after year. Gaither says about one-third of the cast turns over each year.
The audience also becomes an important part of the experience. “It’s often the case that audiences will join in the performance,” says Gaither. “In some instances, the audience gets so moved by the gospel music that they stand up and participate. Our singers enjoy that, because it’s very much in Black tradition for people to join in to performances that they’re enjoying.”
The production features nearly 75 cast members across all generations. In this microcosm of Boston’s Black community, young participants experience the thrill and empowerment of performing on stage, and mature performers have an opportunity to mentor the next generation. Though the 90-minute performance tells a religious story, “Black Nativity” welcomes all audiences to celebrate the joy and community of the holiday season.
“’Black Nativity’ brings us together to see each other’s smiles after a year of COVID-19 disruptions. We sorely need the hope that comes with new beginnings, the hope of which ‘Black Nativity’ speaks,” says Gaither. “[The show] is a gift from Boston’s Black community to people of good will from all traditions.”