The winter holiday season summons Christmas-themed, feel-good, family-friendly theatrical entertainment. It’s the time of the year when theaters, ballets and symphonies across the country unwrap productions of holiday favorites.
In Sarasota, a standout among the artistic holly is “Black Nativity.” Written by Langston Hughes, poet extraordinaire and one of the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, the musical depicts the biblical birth of baby Jesus through the artistic and cultural lens of the African-American experience. Gospel music and jazz, modern and African dance are incorporated into the play to elevate the story’s inherent spirituality. The musical premiered off-Broadway in 1961 and has been performed ever since as a spiritual and artistic revival.
Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s production, running from Dec. 3 through Dec. 21, is a reflection of Hughes’ highly adaptable and inspirational piece. Founding Artistic Director Nate Jacobs adds his personal dynamic flair to the show’s traditional gospel soundtrack by weaving in his own original songs. In addition, choreographer Donald Frison inserts his modern- and African-inspired choreography to the classic nativity tale.
Though this is the first time Jacobs and Frison have collaborated, they discovered that they fit together as snug as a young babe in a manger.
“I couldn’t do any research on the choreography of past productions because of the original music being used,” says Frison, “and it had to come from within. I knew it would all work out because his (Jacobs’) songs were so original and moving. I just closed my eyes and saw the dances.”
The musical, spiritual and cultural mash-up delivers the innate power of the nativity story along with the soul-stirring qualities of song and dance.
“During rehearsal you look around the room and the stage sometimes and we start a scene and these moments just happen,” says Jacobs. “You look into the performers’ faces and there’s this awe-inspiring spiritual experience.”
Before the original production opened, it suffered an internal controversy when the title was changed from “Wasn’t it a Mighty Day?” to “Black Nativity.” Producers and actors feared white audiences wouldn’t attend a show with such a divisive title.
But, just like “Black Nativity,” the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe has repeatedly resonated with theater audiences. The label of black is not a divider but just a description of a culture and experience that anyone of any age, creed, race or gender can recognize and celebrate. Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s impressive growth over the past 15 years is proof that great stories told well unify the human spirit.
“The style of the music and the spirit of the show is black,” says Jacobs, “but the story and its elements are all universal. And, just like this company, the show can be embraced by everyone in the community.”
Musically, an integral part of “Black Nativity” is the intangible qualities and strength of gospel music.
Throughout the history of 20th century popular music, some of the most heralded and popular voices of the age such as Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Dionne Warwick, Patti LaBelle, Usher, Diana Ross, R. Kelly, John Legend and Little Richard all got their start in church choirs. This music of inspiration, deliverance and spiritual victory has its fingerprints all over pop, R&B/soul and rock-and-roll music.
If this year’s production of “Black Nativity” is well received (WBTT previously produced it in 2002 and 2006), Jacobs hopes to turn it into a Sarasota family tradition. Now that the troupe’s budget and finances are at a secure level, Jacobs hopes to interchange “Black Nativity” and an original work, “Motown Christmas,” during every future holiday season.
Jacobs and Frison’s excitement and emotion are in abundance when speaking of the show and the process. It clearly isn’t just another show. And they hope that audiences that come, whether they believe in the religious impact of the story, are affected for the better by it.
Before they begin discussing the addition of the set design in the next rehearsal, Frison explains that “Black Nativity” displays what Christmas is all about. Above the sparkling lights, bedecked trees and colorful gift-wrap, is that gospel truth: the promise of a better tomorrow and love for all peoples.
“That is what we’re doing at WBTT is to say remember the reason,” says Jacobs. “I want them to be in a better place after they see this show. There are 160 people in here a night, and we want our audience to be refreshed and revived through ‘Black Nativity.’”
IF YOU GO
When: Runs through Dec. 21
Where: 1646 10th Way
Info: Call 366-1505 or visit wbttsrq.org.