STORY WRITTEN BY TARA LYNN JOHNSON
For Digital First Media
The ancient story of Christ’s birth and the meaning of Christ in modern times is the focus of “Black Nativity” at Theatre Horizon. The musical, written by poet Langston Hughes, runs Nov. 12 through Dec. 6, and kicks off the company’s 11th season.
The show originally was performed on Broadway 50 years ago. The story starts in ancient Africa, but Hughes left room for later productions to add and make changes to reflect the times and their communities. So the story also visits post-Katrina New Orleans. The show uses African and contemporary dance and gospel music to tell the story of “a downtrodden people inspired by the arrival of a savior,” says the press release. In addition to the ensemble of actors, each performance will feature a local choir or singing group.
Director Ozzie Jones said in a recent telephone interview that the first act is about the birth of Christ and the second act is about “the presence of Christ in the lives of modern people.” One of his intentions is to show people a different way to see Christ.
“For centuries, the representation has been in a Renaissance way – Christ looks like an Italian man,” he said. “In the first act, we make it clear he was a man of African descent.”
Another intention for Jones is to help people see that Bible stories are relevant today.
“I want them to understand that Mary and Joseph and the kings and everybody, that they are representative of people in their world right now,” he said. To illustrate that connection, for instance, “Mary [Christ’s mother] is in act one. In act two, there’s a girl named Mary who’s pregnant.”
Jones, who has directed versions of the show at various places around the country and even in South Africa, appreciates that Hughes left a lot of room for creativity.
“There’s so much freedom,” he said. “It’s always an exciting piece to work on.”
And it’s especially meaningful and fun, too, because he’s a Christian and so he believes the story. He’s approaching the work with greater fervor then, because it’s spiritually and culturally connected to him.
Nastassja Baset, of West Philly, who worked with Jones this summer in “Othello” at Malcolm X Park, shares his enthusiasm. She’s a member of the ensemble and is looking forward to performing. She’s excited to work with the other actors – she said she felt the group had chemistry even during the audition process. She also likes the story.
“This show is about love, hope, and faith,” she said in a telephone interview, “and in believing in the things you do not see.”
She thinks that it’s relevant to today’s world and is happy to see “black bodies with that story,” she said. “It’s a refreshing way of looking at the story of Jesus and his birth.”
She hopes that audiences will be touched by “Black Nativity.”
“I hope they get a warm feeling in their heart,” she said. “I hope they feel comfort and reassurance, that something that sparks them in the play will help them to see the beauty of them and that they’re blessed.”
Jones hopes for that and more.
“I want them to have fun. I want them to be moved and, ultimately, I want them to have a spiritual experience. They’re going to dance and sing. They’re going to cry, going to laugh,” he said. “I want them to leave asking questions about what their personal relationship is to God. If they leave, and there is none, that’s OK. If there is one, but they’re denying it, that’s up to them. If they know they have one, then they can celebrate it in the theater.”