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Stage Review

‘Black Nativity’ keeps tradition not just alive, but vital

Kaleisha Chance, as Mary, holds Logan Watson (baby Jesus), while Derek Louizia (Joseph) and members of Black Persuasion look on in “Black Nativity,” presented by National Center of Afro-American Artists. Edgar Troncoso

Boston abounds in cherished holiday traditions. “The Nutcracker’’ is one. “Holiday Pops’’ is another.

But when it comes to emotional and spiritual nourishment, it’s hard to top “Black Nativity.’’

For nearly half a century, this retelling of the Christmas story, based on a 1961 “gospel song-play” by the great African-American writer Langston Hughes, has served as the beating heart of the Yuletide season hereabouts. This year is no exception.

Near the beginning, in a stately, moving processional that may give you chills, a parade of barefoot, white-robed choristers enter from the rear of the Paramount Center Mainstage, singing “Go Tell It On the Mountain.’’ Over the next hour and a half, “Black Nativity’’ gives voice to that welter of feelings, hopes, and ideals that tend to rise to the surface this time of year (after tunneling up through all that cynicism).


Choristers and soloists perform a blend of gospel songs and traditional carols, bringing expressivity and conviction to tunes that range from jubilant to mournful, including the hypnotic “Rise Up Shepherd and Follow,’’ “Mary’s on the Road,’’ “O Come All Ye Faithful,’’ “Joy to the World,’’ and “What Child Is This?” Stirring solos are delivered by Dwayne Burgess, Darius Ware, Vivian Cooley-Collier, Mildred Walker Washington, and Charles Potter, among others.

The longest-running production of “Black Nativity’’ in the country, the Boston performance features adult singers from Voices of Black Persuasion and young people from Children of Black Persuasion. “Black Nativity’’ is astutely directed by Voncille Ross, whose association with the production — speaking of tradition — goes back more than four decades, to when she sang in the children’s choir.

Narrator Milton L. Wright anchors the production and, indeed, is central to its success. Wright (who is also the director of the adult chorus), strikes a judicious blend between authoritativeness and companionability as he tells the momentous story of the journey to Bethlehem taken by Joseph and a very pregnant Mary, portrayed onstage by Derek Louizia and Kaleisha Chance, respectively.


They do not speak, but the actors are eloquent in their movements and expressions. When it comes time for the birth of Jesus, Chance expresses the event in dance, choreographed by George Howard. Chance is absolutely riveting, managing to communicate both Mary’s desperation and determination. To the rapidly escalating sound of African drums (several drummers are located upstage), her movements grow ever faster and more convulsive until the dance reaches a point of nearly unbearable intensity.

At the performance I attended, a live baby was cast in the role of the infant Jesus. The baby cried lustily through the performances of “Poor Little Jesus,’’ “Oh What a Pretty Little Baby,’’ and “Mary, Mary, What You Gonna Name Your Baby’’ as the children’s chorus gathered around Louizia, Chance, and the baby. It was a touching, if noisy, tableau. As she comforted the squalling child in her arms, Chance did an admirable job maintaining a Mary-like serenity.

Later, when the company performed “A Mighty Day’’ and “Christ is Born,’’ the audience was invited to clap along. Many did, gladly succumbing to the atmosphere of communion. Enfolding us in its joyously affirmative embrace, “Black Nativity’’ simply lifts the spirit, in every sense of that word.


Based on a script by Langston Hughes. Directed by Voncille Ross. Choreography, George Howard. Presented by National Center of Afro-American Artists. At Paramount Center Mainstage, Boston. Through Dec. 18. Tickets: 617-824-8000, www.blacknativity.org


Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.