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Joyful Vibe

Karamu House revives Langston Hughes's Black Nativity.


Langston Hughes really isn't known for his sense of joyous abandon. In fact, the celebrated writer could be preachy, moralistic, and heavy-handed at times. Which makes the presence of Black Nativity in his repertoire both surprising and exhilarating. The two-act play tells the tale of Christ through song, dance, and spirited storytelling, each spiced with a splash of gospel music that places the show closer to church revelry than stage stodginess.

"The first act is basically the Gospel according to Luke," explains Gordon McClure, the director and choreographer of Karamu House's production of Black Nativity, which runs through January 6. "It's the story of Mary and Joseph and the birth of Jesus Christ, told in song and classical dance." And with its dance-in-the-aisle vibe, it's unlike any other Nativity scene.

McClure notes that most other productions of Black Nativity omit the second act, which is set in a present-day tent revival. "Hughes likes larger-than-life cartoon characters," he explains, and through them, "We [see] how the story of the miracle of the birth has continued. It becomes a cause and effect, a transfer."

McClure, who has directed the show for the past four years, says the production is of continued interest to him because the music is updated yearly. "That's the luxury of not having a score per se," he explains. And while some of that Hughes moralizing is on display ("There are some challenging things in there"), "it's joyous and humorous and ends on a very positive note."

Black Nativity is especially poignant this year, McClure adds, because it strikes a chord of relevancy after the events of September 11. "In light of the times we're living in, it gives the audience a feeling of hope and strength and positive control over the situation."

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