On Sunday afternoon Nov. 14, and on two previous evenings, Langston Hughes' play "Black Nativity" was created anew by Albany State University's Theatre Ensemble. But this was considerably more than just a play. It was a amalgam of the performance arts entailing music, poetry, singing and dance all woven together, not only to tell the story of the virgin Mary's angelic annunciation, conception, and birth of the child who would be called Jesus, but also of that child's growth into manhood, the achievement of his missionary saving death on a cross, thus ushering in a new religious era which the world now knows as Christianity.
It's first performance occurred on Broadway on Dec. 11, 1961, after settlement of a dispute mounted by dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey, whose dance troupe named after him is still famous the world over and dancer Carmen de Lavallade, who was for many years a dancer at the New York's Metropolitan Opera House and other venues around New York City. At the center of the dispute was the play's original title, "Wasn't it a Mighty Day." Apparently it took the departure of Ailey and de Lavallade to bring the title change to its present one.
The production is divided into two acts with nine scenes in act one and 10 in act two. It opened with a "church service" sung by the "Anointed ASU Gospel Choir." The music was all gospel sung in the best tradition and style of that music. The drama began with the Archangel Gabriel's visit to 15-year-old Mary -- a virgin -- informing her that God had chosen her to bear a son for a special and lofty purpose: the salvation of the world, a release from Adam's original Eden sin of disobedience.
Her more elderly husband Joseph's intense misunderstanding sent him into a paroxysm of jealous rage, even to the point of threats of death by stoning for her "infidelity." His anger was assuaged only by an angelic visitation to him explaining all this.
The plot roughly outlines the biblical account. The birth scene was imaginatively staged. Four "angels" stood on opposite sides of the manger with two broad silky sheets slowly and rhythmically maneuvering them to cover the scene in sync with music and dancers in support of Mary's screams as she went through her labor pains to produce God's wonderful, expiative gift to the world. Herod's fear followed, eliciting his decree to kill all innocents -- Jesus might be among them -- the trio's escape to Egypt, then the long leap toward the now young man's completion of his purpose; his passion, trial, death, resurrection, setting the stage for his theological transition into The Christ and a new religion.
Special mention must be made of the dancers in their role of supporting the changing dramatic plot and varying moods of the characters. Their function here is similar to that of the ancient Greek dancers and choruses who gave so much virility to those dramas. We also salute Jasmine Green as Mary, Ta'Varis Wilson as Joseph, and the adult suffering Jesus figure, Theodore Holmes. We're pained that space does not allow for more extensive kudos to others actors and support personnel. But we cannot close without a deep bow of respect to music director J. Nathan Paige, whose mastery at the keyboard of this particular music genre is unsurpassed. Theater director DeRon Williams and dance choreographer Martez Favis must be highly commended for their imagination and uncanny ability to make students believe in their talents and ability. Every aspect of the performance can be summed up in the overused but appropriate word: brilliant!
James Marquis is emeritus professor of music, retired, at Albany State University.