On Sunday afternoon inside The Greater St. Stephen Missionary Baptist Church in Northeast Portland, a man led an older woman named Glenda Pullem slowly up the aisle and helped her onto the stage. She stood there firmly, facing the audience, and, in a gliding, roaming, authoritative voice somewhere along the river where gospel, jazz, and blues meet, started to sing: “There’s a leak in this old building.” That’s when the good chill began to build, starting somewhere around my lower back and radiating upward and outward, elevating everything around me. The feeling punched into overdrive when a chorus a dozen-odd voices strong, gathering behind me where I couldn’t see them in the rows between the pews, broke into vibrant, beautifully calibrated, full-volume response. Ah, my nerve ends told me happily. So this is what it’s going to be like.
I’d gone to St. Stephen, a small frame church just north of Fremont and a couple of blocks west of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, to see and hear Black Nativity, a show I’d long been curious about but never seen before. It’s a gospel-music retelling of the nativity story, assembled by the great American poet and writer Langston Hughes, who brought together a lot of traditional songs and a few new ones, took some lines from the King James narrative, and added some of his own sharp, deep poetry to create a version of the story with deep roots in African American culture and a broad, resounding appeal beyond. The miracle, if you will, of his version is that it makes the story feel less like a ritual or a dogma and more like a current event, something happening right now in real time. The hour-plus play, which subtly connects the hardships and determination of the biblical characters with the experiences and spirit of black Americans, is much like a cantata, telling an extended story through music. It debuted Off-Broadway with a cast of 160 singers in 1961, fairly late in the life of Hughes, one of the giants of the Harlem Renaissance.