Black Nativity is a Christmas musical first performed on New York's Broadway in 1961. Described by its author, Langston Hughes, as a "gospel song play," Black Nativity is a rousing and deeply moving re-telling of the birth of Jesus from the point of view of African Americans, using the musical forms, rhythms, staging, and lively tradition of black gospel music.
The musical was performed every Christmas season from 1998 to 2013 here in Seattle. The theatrical director was Jackie Moscou, the music director was Patrinell Wright, and the choreography was designed by Donald Byrd.
In August of 2011 I got an email from my wife, Alix, who told me that auditions were open for the Black Nativity choir. There were lots of reasons for me to think it was crazy for me to try out. For one thing, I happen to be a white guy. Secondly, I had not sung in public since I was 17 years when I decided I no longer shared my family's fundamentalist Christian faith. Although I loved singing, I dropped out of my church -- and my church choir -- in 1967, forty-four years ago. I had felt like a fraud when I sang those old gospel hymns even as all around me I saw so-called "good Christians" defending racial injustice and the horrific violence of the war in Vietnam. Later, when I became an activist for social justice and civil rights, I noticed that black churches and black church people shared my religious heritage, but that those churches were centers of social change and personal transformation. Black gospel songs were far more exciting and emotional -- lively, rhythmic, spiritual, danceable, clappable -- and they came directly from the heart.
As I was writing my book The Sword of the Lord I began a journey to re-examine, re-imagine, and recconnect with the Christian faith I remember as a child. That journey has been both intellectual and deeply emotional, and an important part of it has been connected with music, both the liturgical music I now sing as a member of the Gallery Choir at St. Mark's Cathedral and the black gospel music you can hear from the Total Experience Gospel Choir led by Patrinell Wright. I am not especially inspired by the style in which I learned to sing the old-time white gospel music of my childhood, but I am deeply drawn to, spiritually connected with, and emotionally inspired by these other forms of music that are also very old...but new to me.
To my astonishment and delight I was invited to join Black Nativity for the 2010 season, and then got a call back for the 2011 production, which opened on December 8th. For two years I was a tenor in the choir. In addition, I sang a small and simple solo for a single verse of This Little Light of Mine as an intro to the main performace of that song by one of the other soloists -- either the amazing Madame Evelina King or the astounding Tracy White.