Hughes’ ‘Black Nativity’ cradles culture, religion

The holiday musical classic “Black Nativity” first opened in New York’s 41st Street Theatre in 1961.

Since then it has been performed in several other places including President Kennedy’s International Jazz Festival. Today the Essential Theatre will bring the play here.

Written by renowned poet, novelist and playwright Langston Hughes, “Black Nativity” is a unique blend of narrative and soulful gospel songs.

The additional text is by Mike Malone. The play gives an innovative approach to the timeless story of the birth of Jesus Christ.

In correlation with “Reclaiming Ourselves,” the Essential Theatre’s theme for the 2002-2003 season, “Black Nativity” depicts the Christmas story using black characters.

“It is something we can use as our own tradition,” said Reggie Kelly, director of the play. He began his theater career in Cleveland at Karamu House, the oldest African-American theatrical institution.

“Baby Jesus is black and there is also a choir of African-American voices,” Kelly said.

“The narrative truly becomes a black nativity.”

The play begins with text from Luke of the Kings James version of the Bible.

The second act has been adapted into a gospel music revue; the songs range from famous Negro spirituals to contemporary hymns.

“There is a broad scope of music, from Mahalia Jackson to Yolanda Adams,” said stage manager Monica Woods, a theater student from Pensacola.

She said the purpose of theater is to be touched emotionally.

Lashawnda Batts, 18, a freshman theater performance student from Miami, said she would like people to gain an appreciation for the Christmas story and the music. Batts will dance in “Black Nativity.” She and the rest of the cast have been practicing since the end of October.

The Essential Theater has gained a reputation of excellence.

“I am supportive of FAMU theater productions,” said Cameron Murphy, 20, a business student from Philadelphia.

“The actors have so much talent and they come to life on stage,”

Patrons can expect an evening filled with songs that evoke the Christmas spirit as well as a number of rhythmic dance routines, Kelly said.

Partial proceeds will benefit the Irene C. Edmonds Youth Theatre.

“Black Nativity” will be presented in the Charles Winter Wood Theater, Tucker Hall through Sunday. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday shows begin at 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday performances begin at 2 p.m. Adult tickets are $12, senior citizens $9, children $7 and FAMU students are free with ID.