Karamu House’s “Black Nativity” is a prayer and communal worship on stage
“Black Nativity” had its start in the brilliant mind of Langston Hughes. His vision was to have an adaption of the Nativity Story performed by an entirely Black cast. While Langston was the author of the book, the lyrics and music came from traditional carols sung in a gospel style. A few songs were created specifically for the show.
The production first saw the light of stage off-Broadway on December 11, 1961 and is considered one of the first plays written by an African American. What followed was a European tour in 1962 and it has been performed at various locations in Boston, Massachusetts every holiday season for over 50 years.
The original show would begin with a darkened theater as barefoot singers clad in white and carrying electric candles would enter the stage singing “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” The story of the birth of Jesus Christ would then be shared with special stage lighting emphasizing Joseph and Mary’s search for a room, Mary’s contractions as her time drew near and the birth. The roles of the three wise men would often be played by prominent members of the Black community in the neighboring area. The show would close with a reprise of “Go Tell it on the Mountain” and a soliloquy by a young child, ending the performance.
There was some controversy concerning the name of the show. The original title was “Wasn’t It a Mighty Day?” but was changed to “Black Nativity” resulting in Alvin Ailey and Carmen de Lavallade leaving the show in protest.
Cleveland is blessed to have this work as part of our holiday offerings. “Black Nativity” was originally performed in the Jelliffe Theatre at Karamu House on 89th Street in the Fairfax area on the east side of Cleveland, Ohio. It was performed there for 33 seasons. Last year in partnership with Cleveland Play House it was moved to the Allen Theatre at Playhouse Square and as with the Jelliffe is selling out for nearly every performance.
This version of the show is a reconceptualized production set in an Afrofuturistic landscape. It draws on the concept of past, present and future exist simultaneously and in harmony. Thirteen cast members take the stage dressed in colorful futuristic costumes reflecting the African heritage. The opening song “Black Nativity” gives way to “Joy To The World” as the nativity story is told through song, dance, poetry, scripture and gospel music. The second act is reminiscent of an old fashioned “come to Jesus” meeting as voices are lifted in praise and testimonies are sung as to the power of God over our lives.
From the original productions at the Jelliffe Theatre to its transformation to downtown Cleveland nothing has been lost. The stage is bathed in dramatic video projections and awash in bright color. The ten piece orchestra under the direction of Dr. David M. Thomas is more than equal to the task. It is a high energy show of the highest caliper. Each and every singer is in full and glorious voice and the dancers are a wonder to watch.
If you are looking for a holiday show that is truly inspiring then I suggest you get tickets right away to the Karamu House production of Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity” on stage in the Allen Theatre at Playhouse Square in Cleveland, Ohio. You will find yourself singing and dancing along with the performers. Somebody say “Amen”!
Karamu House (in cooperation with Cleveland Play House) production of “Black Nativity” will be on stage in the Allen Theatre at Playhouse Square through December 16, 2023. For more information go to https://karamuhouse.org/ or call (216) 241-6000.