A CHRISTMAS tradition is returning for its eighth year.
Black Nativity, Langston Hughes’ interpretation of St. Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus Christ, offers a mesmerizing performance every year, complete with live music, singing, and dancing, and 2017’s production is no exception.
Auditions began in September, and by the first week of October, Black Nativity was in full rehearsal mode. Led by Director and Executive Producer Darowe J. McMillon, Co-Director, Music Director, and Executive Producter Gary Swindell, Artistic Director, Lead Choreographer, and Executive Producer Muriel Miller, Stage Manager Lucia Jahannes, Stage Manager Leigh Abernathy, and Production Assistant Melissa Lloyd-Wade, the Performing Arts Collective of Savannah’s Nativity is ready to share their spirit with Savannah.
Miller got involved in the production in its early days.
“Our first director, Clinton D. Powell, who started Spitfire Poetry Group, we’d been friends for a really long time and we really wanted to do a play together,” she says.
“So we created the Performing Arts Collective of Savannah and decided that we wanted to do Black Nativity as our first play. We hadn’t done it before, so we chose that one.”
A couple of months after auditions, Powell was admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with cancer.
“He stayed in the hospital all through it, but kept directing from his hospital bed,” Miller warmly remembers. “He wasn’t able to come see the show, so we took the show to the hospital just for him to see.”
Powell passed a month after the special visit. Now, every year, the production travels to a local hospital to honor his memory.
“We try to do things like that all the time,” says Miller.
Black Nativity was first performed Off-Broadway in December 1961. Poet, novelist, playwright, and activist Hughes shaped holiday history with his retelling of the classic Nativity story, featuring an entirely black cast and traditional Christmas carols sung in gospel style. Over the years, the production has become a classic for communities and families everywhere.
“We do the original Langston Hughes version with our spin on it,” Miller says. “We start the play with a scripture, John 1:1: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ That’s how we start our play off, but that’s something of a unique thing.”
Performing Arts Collective of Savannah also likes to put their one-of-a-kind touch on the production through music.
“Langston Hughes created the musical where you could insert whatever song you want to insert in the play,” explains Miller.
“He wrote in there that you can just do it straight, like how he has it, but he specifically says you can substitute whatever song out to fit whatever as time goes on. We have songs that we created ourselves and traditional songs with our own spin on it. Gary Swindell is our Music Director, and he rearranges the music to make it our own.”
According to Miller, 2017’s cast is an eclectic one.
“There’s a few new people and some who have done it before and are returning,” Miller says. “It’s a mixture of new and old.”
And as always, Black Nativity features a real baby Jesus cooing in the manger.
“We always say we’re going to have a contest or something—we’ve never done it yet—but usually we just ask our cast members, ‘Do you know anyone that’s due in October or November?’” Miller says.
“There’s always a baby being born! It shouldn’t be that hard to find one. I try to get a baby born in late October, early November, as close to the day as possible. Sometimes we have babies that just know when to coo and cry at just the right time.”
This year, Black Nativity will be performed for the first time at New Generation Cathedral on Tennessee Avenue.
“It’s going to be in a new venue, and we prefer it in a church,” Miller says.
“It just feels good in a church! We’ve done it at Savannah Arts Academy, and it was good then, but it wasn’t as intimate, you know? It’s working out great, it’s more space than we’ve had previously at other churches, so it should work just fine.”
Having been behind the scenes since the very beginning, Miller has seen first-hand how Savannah has embraced the production and supported the play year after year.
“We always tell people, whether you are in the Christmas spirit yet or not, we will surely get you in the spirit to give,” she says.
“We’re going to keep doing it as long as we can and keep making it a tradition that everyone looks forward to every year.”