Fifty-seven years ago, Langston Hughes, Alvin Ailey and Carmen de Lavallade decided the world needed a celebration of Christmas apart from re-runs of It’s A Wonderful Life and myriad adaptations of A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker in various mediums. What was needed, they surmised, was something with a little color to it, a little extra flavor. What they came up with was an original piece called Wasn’t It a Mighty Day? – traditional Christmas songs done in a gospel style along with other gospel music, all strung together by narration that tells the story of the Nativity. By the time it opened Off-Broadway in 1961 – one of the first Black productions ever to do so – Ailey and Lavallade had left the production over a dispute about the new name, Black Nativity.
Decades later, Black Nativity is still serving its original function of providing something other than the standard, all-white Christmas fare. There is a Black Nativity production going on somewhere in just about every corner of the nation. In Portland, Black Nativity is produced by the longest-running Black theater company in the city, PassinArt.
Almost forty years ago, following much the same impetus as Hughes, Ailey and Lavallade in New York, Connie Carley, Michael Brandt and Clarice Bailey decided to fill a need they saw in the cultural scene of Portland. Together, they created PassinArt, whose goal is literally to pass the art and culture (and history, knowledge, etc.) of the Black community down from one generation to the next. After a brief period of flux, Carley became the managing director and Jerry Foster became the artistic director. The two have kept PassinArt going ever since. (Last season, their production of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running garnered eight finalist nods in the Drammy Awards, including one for Oustanding Production, and took home the prizes for Ensemble and Set Design.)
Like Two Trains, many PassinArt productions deal with issues around social justice that face the Black community. For both Carley and Foster, the purpose behind Black Nativity is the same – but different.
“We want people to be edu-tained about the African-American experience,” says Foster, “and that’s what we provide. When I say edu-tained, I mean being educated but also being entertained at the same time.”
Carley elucidates: “Our mission is to pass our history and culture from one generation to the next. We couldn’t do that without including the black church. Historically, the church was not only there to strengthen our faith, but over the years of discrimination and oppression, the church provided a number of other functions, including food, shelter, child care, maybe even a scholarship for someone to go to school. Churches were the first real property that Black people bought and owned. So I get very concerned when I hear about black churches disappearing because historically, regardless of what was going on around them, the churches were still present in the community. ”
“That’s where are our roots are,” continues Foster. “Our roots are in the church.” So it was only natural that at some point, the church would take a significant role on the PassinArt stage. PassinArt first produced Black Nativity in the mid-’90s with a cast of all children and Portland luminary Janice Scroggins as musical director. Scroggins passed away in 2014 and “All the kids we worked with then are grown and have kids of their own,” muses Foster.
Five years ago, Foster and Carley decided to bring back Black Nativity, this time with a cast of adults. “One of the things I wanted to do with Black Nativity with adults,” says Foster, “was I wanted to do it without microphones and minimal instruments, so we just had the piano and drums and they were just there to help with the rhythm aspect of it, but it’s the voices that we want to hear. When I grew up in the church we didn’t have piano and we didn’t have drums. We had tambourines and we had voices. It was all straight-up harmony. They even emulated instruments with their voices. I was intrigued by that. ‘Wow. How are they able to make those sounds, make those voices sound like horns?’, you know what I mean? So, when we decided we were going to do it with adults, I decided I wanted to find the right group of people that could emulate those instruments with their voices.”
To assist in achieving that goal, they brought in a veritable dynamo of a music director, Andrea Allen, of the Emmanuel church. “I come from a generation of singers,” says Allen, “my great grandmother, my grandmother, my mom, my children, we all sing and play instruments. Music has been a compass, a foundation for my family personally. When it comes to singing, when it comes to playing instruments, I connect.” Watching her work, Allen’s command of the room is palpable; her energy and intensity, infectious.
In fact, the rehearsals, which have been happening since September, were fun right from the beginning. “What makes it good is when you come to the very first rehearsal. It’s the first time everybody’s gotten together. And when you hear it for that first time, you know what it’s going to be like. We started grinning and laughing and getting goosebumps. You want to dance yourself because you know what the people are going to feel.”
This is the real bottom line of Black Nativity: what people are going to feel.
In a word: joy.
If you’ve ever been to a traditional Black church, you know, the music isn’t just sound, it’s a physical force. Foster, Carley and Allen all used the word “uplift.” When you’re actually in the room with the music, as I was for one rehearsal, you realize, this is not a metaphor. This is what is happening to you.
“People want to be uplifted,” says Foster. “With the current political climate people need an outlet.” Black Nativity is a chance to “let go of the outside world and enjoy yourself for a brief ninety minutes.” The goal, Carley adds, is for people to “just breathe and relax and have a good time. It doesn’t have to be super-serious. It’s just about having a good time.”
By “relax” and “let go,” however, Carley and Foster don’t mean to sit back and politely take in the music. No, not quite. “One of the things we like to do with Black Nativity,” says Foster, smiling, “is we take away the theater etiquette. You know, where you sit in your seat and maybe you clap. No, at this show, if you want to dance, dance. If you want to sing, sing. If somebody wants to get up and shout, get up and shout. We got people that can take care of that. We have the aisles available for you. Or you can stand in your place and dance. We’ve had people, I mean, just getting down on the music. But that’s what it’s about. And I’m talking about it transcends across cultures. Let yourself go. Have fun!”
And people do. People have. Everybody is welcome. Carley has several stories of people from Vancouver, from the Coast, from other states, from a variety of different faiths or no faith at all, coming to Black Nativity and finding themselves, to their own surprise, in the aisles dancing. And more and more, they’re seeing repeat customers, sometimes from this season, sometimes from other years. More and more people have told Foster and Carley that attending Black Nativity has become part of their family’s Christmas tradition.
This is great, but it also provides a new challenge for Foster. “We want it to be a tradition but we also keep it fresh. You keep doing the same thing over and over again, it makes it stale. That’s not what we do. We inject different songs so you hear different music. Someone says, ‘Well, I heard it last year.’ Well, you may have heard some of it last year but there are some new songs, too.”
The show has gotten popular enough that other churches have asked PassinArt to bring the show to them. Carley just smiles when she hears this suggestion. “We might take them a small portion but the goal is to actually get people to come into the community and feel okay about it. You hear all these stereotypes about how we are supposed to be but when you’re here and you see how people are all uplifting and just welcoming to people, hopefully that gives you a different idea about who we are.” She laughs, “I call it a teachable moment.”
PassinArt’s Black Nativity started out at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, then moved to the St. Stephens Church. But after a couple of years, it sold out St. Stephens and now is at Bethel AME Church on Northeast Eighth Avenue. The church is larger now, and to make sure the people in the back are having the same experience as the people in the front, microphones have been added. But the music is still pared down to piano and drum for rhythm, and the voices. Ticket prices have gone up this year, but the idea is for everybody who wants to come see Black Nativity to be able to see it. There are number of ways and opportunities, from volunteering to senior or children discounts to the Arts for All program, for people to get in.
Anybody and everybody who puts in the effort will be richly rewarded. “If you haven’t seen it,” says Andrea Allen, “you have missed a treat. What Black Nativity does is, it gives some people an opportunity to come together and to enjoy some good music and then bring that Christmas spirit back into their homes.” If the few minutes of rehearsal I witnessed are any indication, you’ll be doing yourself and your family and friends a favor.
PassinArt: A Theatre Company’s Black Nativity continues at 7:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 16 at Bethel AME Church, 5828 N.E. Eighth Ave., Portland. Ticket information here.