Corporeal aspect of nativity explored
This year’s production of Black Nativity by NC A&T’s Richard B. Harrison Players opens with dozens of bodies onstage. There are bodies banging drums, bodies dancing, bodies singing and even a few bodies just hanging around.
The sheer number of bodies, along with a script unexpectedly heavy on physical suffering and celebration, make the production one of the most – I don’t know – corporeal Christmas plays around.
Black Nativity, written by Langston Hughes and first performed on Broadway in 1961, is the retelling of the nativity by all an-black, gospel-singing cast. Over the past 45 years it’s become as much a part of the theatrical holiday tradition as Dickens.
The play, as its name suggests, depicts the Biblical story behind Christmas, and as such, dispenses with most of the holiday’s modern trappings like Santa Claus and gift exchanges. It is, at some level, an extended sermon on Luke 2:1-20.
But on another, the one evinced by those masses moving and singing, it is very much about the body itself. The first act of Black Nativity tells the mystical story of Jesus’ birth, but it does so in a way absolutely grounded in the physical realities of Mary and Joseph’s struggle.
The play opens on the couple, cast out of Jerusalem, imploring an innkeeper to take them in for the night. The stage fills with wailing and yelling as the innkeeper refuses and Mary moans with contractions. Angels and divine intervention are in conspicuously short supply.
Hughes’ version begins with an emphasis on the agonizing climax to what was, after all, an immaculate conception. Mary is not the only one suffering. As her condition deteriorates, Joseph lifts her up bodily and carries her through the harsh desert, in high winds and burning sun, until they find refuge in the manger.
All of this unfolds in dance and song, starting with an African chant and then moving through synthesized gospel versions of tradition Christmas carols. Although Joseph and Mary nominally occupy the spotlight for the first act, the chorus moves most of the action forward.
The story shifts away from Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus during one scene that focuses on an errant sheepherder and the wages of sin. He suffers for his sinfulness physically, by shivering in the cold because he can’t afford a coat.
In the first act, the bodies are covered in billowing robes and traditional African dress. The three wise men, who are usually played by leaders in the black community, make a cameo dressed in finery bearing extravagant gifts. Their presence points up the humble origins of most of the Messiah’s followers.
Black Nativity emphasizes physical joyfulness much more than it dwells on the pain of childbirth or sin. A corps of dancers expresses its joy in Christ’s birth, as do their honey-voiced counterparts in the chorus. In each case, faith makes possible feats of astounding virtuosity.
The second act is literally a sermon peppered with song. It also features the production’s least successful moment: a version of “Silent Night” sung by a white-gloved choir under blue lights.
The vision of a dozen pairs of hands signing the lyrics is impressive but as disconnected to the feel of the production as those disembodied hands are to their owners.
When the lights come up, the production returns to earth. The preacher exhorts his large congregation to attest to Christ’s love and they do in song, dance and rap.
Throughout the production, the players engage the bodies in the seats, which respond in kind. The result is a celebration that, in its sheer enthusiasm, manages to transcend the physical limitations that ground and inspire it.
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