gospel theater

Black Nativity: The joy is now

PassinArt's Portland production of Langston Hughes's gospel musical moves up to a bigger church, and keeps the music fresh

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.)

The 2018 “Black Nativity” cast. Photo courtesy PassinArt

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.

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Mary of the mysteries

Jacklyn Maddux tells a tale of wonder and regret as the mother of Jesus in Colm Tóibín’s "The Testament of Mary" for Corrib Theatre

Holy Mother of God, how could you say such things? Tense, sad, argumentative and just this side of bitter, Jacklyn Maddux is far from a Renaissance painter’s vision of the Virgin Mary. Then again, that symbol of serene and ardent holiness is not what Colm Tóibín wants her to be. What he wants, as things turn out, is something more combative and conflicted in its mysteries.

Watching Maddux’s solo turn for Corrib Theatre in The Last Testament of Mary, Tóibín’s stage adaptation of his 2012 novella, I thought almost inevitably of Nikos Kazantzakis and his startling, in some circles notorious, novel The Last Temptation of Christ.

Temptation was first published in Greek in 1955, the year that Tóibín was born in Ireland, and although Last Testament is in no way connected stylistically or narratively to the earlier novel, they share a thematic understanding: religious myth is built on human experience. It is rote among Christians to refer to Jesus as both man and god, and yet the “man” half of the equation is routinely subsumed, as if it were a tainted and shameworthy thing, in the glories of the god. Kazantzakis roiled the official waters by writing a novel in which Jesus, far from being above or otherwise separated from humanity, was deeply and passionately human. He felt every emotion, every temptation, including the temptations of the flesh; only by being fully human and understanding what that meant could he be the kind of god he was.

Jacklyn Maddux as Mary, remembering. Photo: Owen Carey

The Last Testament of Mary concentrates on the human, too, through the voice and experiences not of Jesus but his mother, speaking, finally, years after the events. And Mary, to tell the truth, isn’t buying a lot of the mythology. Tóibín chose the word “testament” carefully: This remarkable and sometimes heartrending narrative is indeed a testimony and not a gospel (from the Old English “god spell,” or “good news”). To Mary’s mind, there’s not much good about it. Her account of her son’s life and death could almost be a legal deposition, a statement of the facts as the witness sees them, and yet it is also a dogged questioning, a ruthless self-examination, a turning-inside-out of the soul.

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