Black Nativity: A Gospel Musical
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit everyone in a different way, whether it is financial strain, isolation, illness or the death of friends and family. A return to normalcy is so important right now, and that is what the organizers of “Black Nativity” aim to bring when the show comes back to the Count Basie Center for the Arts at 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 30.
“Black Nativity” is a joyous retelling of the traditional Nativity story using gospel music, dramatic dance and a biblical narrative. The show is based on the Gospel of Luke, using the poetry of American playwright Langston Hughes. It features a cast of singers, actors, dancers and musicians who tell the story of Jesus’ birth and deliver a powerful message of joy and hope. The Dunbar Repertory Theatre Company will present the performance.
“With music, spoken dialogue and dance, everything is tied together very nicely, just like in a classic musical,” said Darrell Lawrence Willis Sr., a retired Brookdale Community College theater professor who serves as producing artistic director and co-founder of the Dunbar Repertory Theatre Company.
Known to residents as Monmouth County’s African-American Theater Company, Dunbar is committed to celebrating African-American culture through literary readings, main stage theatrical productions, educational programs and services. When it debuted in 1961, “Black Nativity” was one of the first plays written by an African American to be performed on Broadway. It has since become an important holiday tradition in many cities across the country
The show contains traditional Christmas carols sung in gospel style, including “Silent Night” and “The Little Drummer Boy,” as well as other songs written specifically for the show. The recreation of the birth of Jesus is one of the most dramatic aspects of the show, as expressed through song, dance and extraordinary costumes.
“Black Nativity” is performed by a large cast of gospel singers, dancers, actors and musicians. This year, due to the struggles many of the performers have endured because of the pandemic, the cast is reduced in size – about 35 compared to the usual 70 – but not diminished in spirit.
“The last couple of years have been so horrendous for so many people,” said Willis. “Many actors were sick or lost family members. It’s a smaller show, but we still have that holiday flavor. It’s a great cast with great singers, and the chemistry is really fantastic. They pulled it together very nicely.”
One of the lead actors is Joseph Taylor of Jackson, who takes on the part of the narrator.
“He’s a wonderful, powerful actor and he’s a pastor, too,” said Willis. “He is bringing his gifts to the role of the narrator.”
The cast is diversified this year as well, with about 10 performers who are not Black.
“People came forward and wanted to be involved and we welcomed them with open arms,” said Willis. “It’s a wonderful collaboration.”
This is the first year that “Black Nativity” will be performed at The Basie since the theater’s historic $28 million renovation.
“People have a really nice surprise coming up,” said Willis. “It’s going to be a jaw dropper when they walk through the door. The renovation is pretty marvelous and fantastic I like to call it ‘marv-tastic.’ ”
Tickets are $15 to $35 and are available at thebasie.org.
“It was always our goal to keep the prices as low as we possibly could so everyone could afford to see the show,” said Willis.
The article originally appeared in the December 9 – 15, 2021 print edition of The Two River Times.