Black Nativity: dignity and joy

PassinArt's production of the Langston Hughes gospel cantata is a bright and shining star of the holiday firmament

On Sunday afternoon inside The Greater St. Stephen Missionary Baptist Church in Northeast Portland, a man led an older woman named Glenda Pullem slowly up the aisle and helped her onto the stage. She stood there firmly, facing the audience, and, in a gliding, roaming, authoritative voice somewhere along the river where gospel, jazz, and blues meet, started to sing: “There’s a leak in this old building.” That’s when the good chill began to build, starting somewhere around my lower back and radiating upward and outward, elevating everything around me. The feeling punched into overdrive when a chorus a dozen-odd voices strong, gathering behind me where I couldn’t see them in the rows between the pews, broke into vibrant, beautifully calibrated, full-volume response. Ah, my nerve ends told me happily. So this is what it’s going to be like.

Langston Hughes's "Black Nativity": a bright and shining star. PassinArt photo

Langston Hughes’s “Black Nativity”: a bright and shining star. PassinArt photo

I’d gone to St. Stephen, a small frame church just north of Fremont and a couple of blocks west of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, to see and hear Black Nativity, a show I’d long been curious about but never seen before. It’s a gospel-music retelling of the nativity story, assembled by the great American poet and writer Langston Hughes, who brought together a lot of traditional songs and a few new ones, took some lines from the King James narrative, and added some of his own sharp, deep poetry to create a version of the story with deep roots in African American culture and a broad, resounding appeal beyond. The miracle, if you will, of his version is that it makes the story feel less like a ritual or a dogma and more like a current event, something happening right now in real time. The hour-plus play, which subtly connects the hardships and determination of the biblical characters with the experiences and spirit of black Americans, is much like a cantata, telling an extended story through music. It debuted Off-Broadway with a cast of 160 singers in 1961, fairly late in the life of Hughes, one of the giants of the Harlem Renaissance.

The current Black Nativity is produced by PassinArt, the African American theater and cultural production company, which first produced it a year ago and plans to make it a December tradition. I knew some of the people involved, including PassinArt artistic director Jerry Foster, who is also director of this show, and I’d heard several people say good things about it. They were right. So many holiday shows feel like obligations or financial opportunities. This one feels like a deep and enthralling truth.

You know the story; you’ve heard it a thousand times. This version concentrates more on the hard journey of Mary and Joseph (played in marvelous mime by Tashia Williams and Eric Island) and the rejections they face in looking for a place to stay than on the miraculous birth itself: it’s a journey toward a home. It’s told in a voice familiar to millions of black Americans from the choirs of the nation’s black churches, and to others from the deep influence black gospel has had on the music we hear every day.

Black Nativity has been a tradition for many years in some other cities. Boston’s been at it since 1969, using a mass choir. Seattle’s version, an annual event since 1998, uses a smaller cast of about 30 voices. Foster says he’d like to build the Portland version into a bigger production, too, but to make it work he’s stripped it down to the basics, with a small but talented and sharply rehearsed cast, hardly any effects, and the simple persuasion of the songs and story. In the small sanctuary of St. Stephen, that feels right: building something both powerful and personal to fill the available space. The songs and action are driven, with great skill, by Brad Reid on keyboards and Walter Dean on drums: It’s all the accompaniment the singers need. Musical coordination by Martin John Gallagher is crisp and energetic, the talented Bobby Fouther’s choreography is both celebratory and restrained, and the wonderful Wanda Walden’s bright and flowing costumes fill the room like moving ornaments. Among holiday season shows, this is a small but bright and shining star.

The pageantry of the tale occurs in a fluid parade of movement and voices, sometimes gathered in full-choral strength, sometimes broken down to quartets or trios or duets or solos, all drawn from within the choir and performed with the choir’s backing. Intermittently, Island as Joseph wanders around the church sanctuary, knocking on invisible doors, searching fruitlessly for, well, sanctuary; at one crucial point Williams, as Mary, performs a beautifully contorted dance across the front of the stage, asserting control of the situation. Throughout the performance Shelley B. Shelley acts as a superb narrator, introducing the action and prodding the movement along. (In some performances Kimberley Black, pastor of St. Stephens, takes the narrator role.)

PassinArt’s Black Nativity is mostly a triumph of the choir, with some fine breakouts. We hear standards and not-so-familiar songs from Go Tell It on the Mountain to ‘Most Done Traveling and Hold On Just a Little While Longer, and some moving solo turns including Quante Cole’s He Brought Joy to My Soul and Tracy Jenkins’ If Anybody Ask You Who I Am (Tell Them I’m a Child of God). It’s the whole choir that makes this thing work, and which also includes Onnie Allen, Michael Foster, Richard Greer, Lurene “CoCo” Jackson, Tanetta Martin, Donna Mullen, Jarel Scott, Charelle Twitty, and Elliott Young (who has toured as a member of the Coasters).

For me, at least, it’s no coincidence that the impact of Black Nativity stands in such stark contrast to the ugly and fractured state of the union in the wake of the national election. This show radiates dignity and joy, old-fashioned virtues sorely lacking in our bellicose current national conversation. If we truly want to make America great again by traveling into a mythical past we might begin by turning our attention back to the actual history of the artists of the Harlem Renaissance and to writers of the early- and mid-twentieth century as diverse as Hughes, Upton Sinclair, Richard Wright, Steinbeck, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, Thornton Wilder, and James Baldwin: writers who insisted on the vital connection between art and society, and aimed to illuminate both the pitfalls and the possibilities in the American nature. Ugliness must be faced, and responded to. Black Nativity is one piece in that process.

Is this the “best” show, from a strictly technical standpoint, I’ve seen in the past few months? It is not. Is it the most moving and genuine? It is. And it runs two more weekends, Friday-Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons through December 18. Ticket and schedule information are here.

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