There are many reasons to see "Black Nativity," the most meaningful being its ability to accomplish what our world leaders cannot: to bring people from all walks of life, races and religions together in peace and harmony. Such is the power of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes' Christmas gift to the world.
Intiman's beloved production debuted eight years ago with director Jacqueline Moscou, Pastor Patrinelli Wright and a choir of six, Rev. Samuel B. McKinney, four actors and three musicians. Now the multicultural choir numbers 40-plus, its members age 12 to 78, from churches all over Seattle. Ten of the singers are also trained dancers, six of them teenagers. And the band has swelled to a half-dozen.
First performed in 1961 near the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, "Black Nativity" unfolds in two parts: the birth of Jesus as seen through the improvisational music and dance tradition of African-American culture, followed by a rousing gospel songfest. Movement is as much a part of this production as music, blending hip-hop, moonwalking and cha-cha with rap, jazz and scat.
After intermission, the theater becomes what Wright affectionately calls "the Intiman Nondenominational Church." For Muslim to Methodist, Presbyterian to Pentecostal, Congregational to Baptist and Catholic to Jew, Hughes' song-play becomes a beacon of freedom. For all are welcome at this vibrant celebration. Friendly rather than slick, jubilant rather than perfect, "Black Nativity" makes neighbors of us all. Pastor Wright insists upon it. When was the last time you turned to the person in front of you in the theater and introduced yourself with a handshake? But Wright doesn't stop there; she wants to know what denomination you frequent. By the time she finishes her survey, people are waving and shouting their religious affiliation from the audience.
Throughout his life, Hughes contrasted the richness of the soul with the trials of ordinary life. For "Black Nativity," he weaves his own poetry into the Gospel according to St. Luke and offers a metaphor to parallel the plight of African Americans. "There was no room in the inn, in the rich, fine hotel. The air is cold, the doors are locked...." Hughes retells the story as if he himself had followed that star to Bethlehem so long ago to find all races of people kneeling together in peace at that manager. Best known for his poetry, Hughes ignored the traditional forms of rhyme in favor of pulsing cadences. He wanted his poems to be read aloud - crooned, shouted and sung from the stables of the heart.
Narrators relay the action, while choir members mirror and mime their words with song and dance. But don't expect a traditional tableau. Hughes' version calls for a jive-talking shepherd who would rather herd girls than sheep. A pack of busybodies who dish the action at the inn. A very pregnant Mary who swoops and swirls with Joseph just before she's delivered. And an angel of the lord who shimmers with grace.
If you're a "Black Nativity" veteran, you know that the performance varies year to year. Director Moscou always crafts her vision of Hughes' play with humor, heart and humanity. But ultimately, this celebration of faith owes its touching splendor to the talented performers.
An exuberant Pastor Wright leads the Total Experience Gospel Choir and Black Nativity Choir through two acts and 20-some songs. And her musical flock obviously shares her enthusiasm, entering through the audience swathed in vibrant African colors, their arms raised to heaven while they sing and sway their way onstage.
As their voices fill the theater with beloved Christmas carols and gospel favorites, every soloist is terrific, including Wright, who even raps a hymn or two. You don't need to seek out rock concerts or nightclubs to hear superstar voices. Take four-year "Black Nativity" veteran, Alison Burton, who possesses one of those rare, exquisite voices with an incredible range and perfect vocal control. When she sings, Burton gives so much of herself, she's weeping by the end of her number.
The irrepressible Stephanie Scott-Haley has been with "Black Nativity" since its first production. Audiences count on her musical performance to evoke laughter as well as spiritual inspiration. And her mischievous choral cohort, five-year veteran Josephine Howell, playfully improvises a faint as part of her shenanigans.
Monica T. McAfee has danced in Intiman's production for seven years, while Evelina King and choir director Sam Townsend share a five-year tenure. The choir even spawned an American Idol finalist, Leah LaBelle (Vladowski), who joined "Black Nativity" at age 12 for five consecutive years. And popular Seattle actress Cynthia Jones was narrator for four of the show's eight seasons.
If you've never heard Rev. Samuel B. McKinney speak, pay close attention. A college classmate of Martin Luther King, McKinney is great man and a great American. He not only reads the scripture for "Black Nativity," he sways with the choir, solos on hymns and instructs the audience not to sit quietly in their seats. And during the second half of the program, between gospel numbers, the much-revered pastor emeritus of Mount Zion Baptist Church adds a few potent remarks about current events.
So once again Hughes' message heralds the end of another year. He dreamed of a world where no man would scorn another. Where avarice and greed would be replaced by freedom and love, and wretchedness by joy. But across the world American soldiers are still dying daily in a dreadful war. Hundreds of thousands of innocent people have perished in natural disasters while thousands more have been left homeless and separated from their families. And on a faraway continent, millions of children continue to die before age 5, tragic victims of poverty, hunger and neglect.
Although God means different things to different people, goodness is perhaps the greatest force in the universe. And in this tech-driven world, "Black Nativity" reminds us that together we still have the power to move mountains. And mountains, even in the concept of intelligent design, are made up of small, sparkling stones.
I don't know about the rest of Seattle, but Intiman's big-hearted testimony to hope makes this transplanted scribe feel closer to God. Humbled and heartened by people willing to share their own faith for the sheer joy of doing so.
'Black Nativity' runs Tuesday to Sunday through Dec. 24 at Intiman Theatre, tickets $10-$42, 269-1900.
Starla Smith is a Queen Anne resident. Before moving to Seattle from New York, Smith was a Broadway journalist and Tony voter.