Black Nativity

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Black Nativity
Black Nativity in Rotterdam (1962)
MusicTraditional gospel spirituals chosen by Langston Hughes
LyricsTraditional gospel spirituals chosen by Langston Hughes
BookLangston Hughes
BasisThe Nativity
Productions1961 Off-Broadway

Black Nativity is an adaptation of the Nativity story by Langston Hughes, performed by an entirely black cast. Hughes was the author of the book, with the lyrics and music being derived from traditional Christmas carols, sung in gospel style, with a few songs created specifically for the show. The show was first performed Off-Broadway on December 11, 1961, and was one of the first plays written by an African American to be staged there. The show had a successful tour of Europe in 1962, one of its appearances being at the Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds in Italy.[1]

Black Nativity has been performed annually in Boston, Massachusetts, at various locations, such as: the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts, Boston Opera House, Tremont Temple, Roxbury Community College, Northeastern's Blackman Auditorium, and presently at Emerson College's Paramount Theater. It has been performed in Boston since 1970 and is considered the longest-running production of Langston Hughes' Black Nativity. The original 160 singers were arranged by age group and vocal range, with an assortment of soloists, along with the narrator, and Mary and Joseph, who are both mute, as well as musicians and ASL interpreters.

The show began with the theater completely darkened. Barefoot singers clad only in white robes and carrying (electric) candles walked in, singing the classic hymn "Go Tell It on the Mountain". The birth of Jesus was one of the most dramatic aspects of the show. The stage, previously lit with orange and blue lights, was bathed in a deep red hue. Mary's contractions were echoed through the use of African drums and percussion. The Three Wise Men were often played by prominent members of the black community in the neighboring area, and had no singing parts. The show closed with the chorus singing a reprise of "Go Tell It on the Mountain" as they walked out in darkness. A final soliloquy by a young child ended the performance.

A week before the musical's December 1961 opening, dancers Alvin Ailey and Carmen de Lavallade withdrew from their roles as Joseph and Mary over the title changing from Wasn’t It a Mighty Day?, objecting to the racialization of a religious term near its Christmas-related significance.[2] Their roles were filled by Clive Thompson and Cleo Quitman, respectively.[3] Louis Johnson, who had replaced Ailey and de Lavallade as choreographer, received criticism from the New York Amsterdam News for dancing that was too constrained by the small stage to match the gospel singing.[4]

A performance of this musical also has taken place every Christmas season since 1998 in Seattle, first at the Intiman Theater and currently at the Moore Theatre. The theatrical director is Jackie Moscou, the music director is Patrinell Wright, and the choreography was designed by Donald Byrd.[5] It is a smaller production with 30 or so choir members – most of whom are also members of The Total Experience Gospel Choir, led by Pastor Patrinell Wright,[6] and the performance also includes 10 dancers and five musicians.


In 2004, a documentary film was made about the world premiere performance, production, and creation of the best-selling gospel Christmas album Black Nativity – In Concert: A Gospel Celebration,[7] and the original cast, under the direction of Aaron Robinson that brought it to life at the Immanuel Baptist Church in Portland, Maine.[8]

A film version directed by Kasi Lemmons and starring Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett was released on November 27, 2013.[9]


  1. ^ Robert M Marovich, A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music, University of Illinois Press, 2015, p. 249.
  2. ^ Skeeter, Sharyn. "Black Nativity by Langston Hughes". Suite. Archived from the original on July 1, 2012. Retrieved July 9, 2014.
  3. ^ Zolotow, Sam (December 4, 1961). "'Rich and Famous' Adds a Producer". The New York Times. p. 49. Retrieved March 3, 2024.
  4. ^ McLaren, Joseph (1997). "From Protest to Soul Fest: Langston Hughes' Gospel Plays". The Langston Hughes Review. 15 (1): 49–61. ISSN 0737-0555.
  5. ^ "Moore Theater performance in Seattle of Black Nativity". STG Presents. Archived from the original on April 18, 2012. Retrieved July 9, 2014.
  6. ^ "Pastor Patrinell Wright - Founder/Director". Total Experience Gospel Choir. Archived from the original on July 14, 2014. Retrieved July 9, 2014.
  7. ^ DeWan, Becca (December 3–9, 2004). "Back in Black". The Portland Phoenix. Archived from the original on June 10, 2015. Retrieved July 9, 2014.
  8. ^ "Black Nativity: In Concert - A Gospel Celebration". IMDb. Retrieved July 9, 2014.
  9. ^ "Black Nativity (2013)". IMDb. Retrieved July 9, 2014.

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