At the end of each year from 1998 to 2012, a staging of Black Nativity by playwright Langston Hughes was produced by Intiman Theatre, captivating Seattle audiences with a poetic celebration of Black joy and talent. Despite Black Nativity’s 10-year hiatus, fans inquired about tickets to the show each winter. This past December, director Valerie Curtis-Newton answered prayers for a Seattle revival with a reimagined production, adding a new act that embraces Black Gospel culture to bring warmth, exultation, and connection to Seattle audiences. The 2023 production also features choreography by Vania C. Bynam and music direction by Sam L. Townsend Jr. It is presented in partnership with The Hansberry Project, a professional African American theater lab “dedicated to the artistic exploration of African American life, history, and culture” led by Curtis-Newton. Founded in 2004, The Hansberry Project aims to provide the community with “consistent access to African American artistic voice… rooted in the convictions that black artists should be at the center of the artistic process, that the community deserves excellence in its art, and that theatre’s fundamental function is to put people in relationship to one another.” Their motto, “Where ART meets SOUL!”, is magnificently reflected in Black Nativity.
The show was first produced off-Broadway in 1961 with a cast of over 160. Since 1970, it has been performed yearly as a cherished tradition in Boston and continues to move and delight audiences nationwide. The show includes an all-Black cast and features design elements that incorporate African and African-American culture. The play, written as one act, is divided into two acts in this reignited production. The first part follows the Christian nativity story of Mary giving birth to Baby Jesus. Black Nativity adapts the classic tale with humor and regard. An incredibly talented gospel choir accompanies soloists from the group as well as a featured cast of five. The choir is clad in classic choral robes, sits around a lively band. Both choreography and choir-ography by Bynam accompany the production. The dancers move in individual spirit; their movements aren’t synchronized, but they’re aligned in their verve and emotion. Solos and duets enhance both sung and spoken passages, and technical vocal talent connects strong feelings with expressive dancing. The costumes by Dannielle Nieves, worn by dancers, featured characters, the five-person cast, and the onstage music director, provide vibrant texture and color to the show. Highlights include a pleated gold cape on an angel, beaded and frilled headpieces, and a blue, tie-dyed wrapped dress around the dancer Mary. Radiant lighting, by designer Robert Aguillar and assistant designer Chih-Hung Shao, masterfully shifts in tones with the story’s spirit. The set, designed by Jennifer Zeyl, consists of stained glass windows hanging above the stage. An upper platform allows for engaging cast movement that enhances this first act.
Choir and Dancers, Photo by Joe Moore 2023