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After more than half a century, ‘Black Nativity’ remains inspired and inspiring

The Three Wise Men approach Mary and Joseph (Kalesha “Kiki" Chance and Joe Gonzalez) in "Black Nativity" at the Emerson Paramount Center.Courtesy of National Center of Afro-American Artists

Through sheer repetition, some annual holiday traditions can calcify or come to feel obligatory, a seasonal duty to be discharged.

Not “Black Nativity,” though. Year after year — the tally is now 53 in Boston, amazingly — Langston Hughes’s “gospel song-play” pulses with the freshness of a new discovery.

Under the expert direction of Voncille Ross, “Black Nativity” proves to be as joyous and stirring as ever in the current production by the Roxbury-based National Center of Afro-American Artists at the Emerson Paramount Center.

A feast of sight and sound on the stage — and in the aisles — “Black Nativity” forges a connection between faith and song in a way that speaks to believers and nonbelievers alike.


A brief digression: Given the spirit of welcome that pervades “Black Nativity,” and the spiritual and cultural nourishment it provides, and the sheer beauty of the performance, it was troubling that the theater was half-empty at the Saturday matinee. This show deserves a packed house.

“Black Nativity” is suffused with gospel songs, folk spirituals, and traditional Christmas carols — mostly exuberant but sometimes sorrowful — performed by the extraordinary singers of Voices of Black Persuasion and Children of Black Persuasion. (The music director for adults is the Honorable Milton L. Wright, and the choral director for children is Marilyn Andry.) Displays of kinetic energy alternate with moments of reverent stillness.

When it comes to touching an emotional chord while serving as an atmospheric prelude to drama, it’s hard to top the processional at the beginning of “Black Nativity."

Scores of white-robed performers — most of them barefoot — hold electric candles and sing “Go Tell It on the Mountain” as they steadily make their way from the back of the Paramount down to the stage. That venerable spiritual has never sounded better.


And tell it they do, with Ashley Villard narrating and the cast delivering one powerful solo or ensemble rendition after another of songs like “My Way Is Cloudy,” “Oh, Jerusalem in the Morning,” “What Child Is This?,” “Poor Little Jesus,” “A Mighty Day,” and “Rise Up Shepherd and Follow,” as well as gospel-infused versions of traditional Christmas carols like “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Joy to the World.”

“Black Nativity” traces the journey of Joseph (Joe Gonzalez) and a very pregnant Mary (Kalesha “Kiki” Chance) as they seek, and are refused, a room in a Bethlehem inn. “No room, no room,“ the ensemble sings mournfully, looking on and offering sympathetic commentary on the plight of the homeless couple.

They find shelter in a manger, and as Mary goes into labor, Chance bursts into a dance of whirling intensity (the dynamic choreography is by George Howard) to the sound of African percussion by Stephen P. O’Neal, seated upstage.

Chance is riveting to watch. Is Mary, with the odds stacked against her, delivering a physical expression of will and determination to get through her ordeal? Or an anguished augury of what will one day happen to her beloved son?

Not long after Mary gives birth to Jesus in the manger, three Wise Men from the East head toward Bethlehem, bearing gifts.

The annual performances of “Black Nativity” in Boston began in 1970, under the guidance of the late, legendary Elma Lewis, a tireless arts educator and advocate who founded the National Center of Afro-American Artists as well as the Elma Lewis School of Fine Art.


The executive director of the National Center of Afro-American Artists is now Edmund Barry Gaither. In a program note, Gaither makes clear that the message of “Black Nativity” is not only about a world-shaking event 2,000 years ago.

“When will we emerge large enough to welcome refugees?“ he writes. “To shelter the homeless? To simply care? Only in that moment will we become human enough to embody the hope and joy promised by the Nativity season. We still have time to learn how to be human and humane!”


By Langston Hughes. Directed by Voncille Ross. Choreography by George Howard. Presented by the National Center of Afro-American Artists. At Robert J. Orchard Stage, Emerson Paramount Center. Through Dec. 17. Tickets $35-$90. 617-824-8400, emersontheaters.org/Online/articles/BNativity

Don Aucoin can be reached at donald.aucoin@globe.com. Follow him @GlobeAucoin.