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“Black Nativity” Reborn

by Allan Appel | Dec 20, 2013 2:12 pm

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Posted to: Arts & Culture, Music, Theater

Allan Appel Photo For more than 30 years Black Nativity, the Christmas story set to a Langston Hughes’ text with African-American liturgical music performed by local choruses, had been a New Haven tradition, most recently performed at Long Wharf.

Then it stopped, seven years ago.

Now two local musical families and area professionals lWes Yarbor, who has performed with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, are combining their graceful moves into a new production designed to endure for decades to come.

Yarbor and a handful of cast members ignored the snowstorm on Tuesday night to rehearse in the parish house at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.

The 20 singers and dancers will be performing at 2 and at 7 p.m. this Saturday only at the Church of St Paul and St. James on Chapel at Olive Street.

In addition to Yarbor and Charles “CC” Brown, whose credits include performing in Rent and The Lion King, the new edition will feature singers from the Gibson-Brown Family and the Monk Family.

Those staples of the local gospel and African-American liturgical music scene are, in the phrase of the show’s director, Aleta Staton, “New Haven treasures.”

The revival is about far more than nostalgia, said Staton. 

She sang for many years in the Heritage Chorale, an African-American group that regularly appeared in Black Nativity at Long Wharf Theatre, the most recent venue for the show, and before that in the decades-long staging that Carol Penny and the Alliance Theater organized at churches around town.

“People would say, ‘I experienced Christmas’” after seeing those shows, said Staton, whose day job is coordinating the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Connecticut.

Her sense of mission has led her to coordinate this new Black Nativity, which she says is now here to stay.

The first part of the performance is framed by members of a church group performing the story of the birth of Jesus, including poor pregnant Mary’s trudging with Joseph through the night looking for lodging.

Dancer Wes Yarbor (in the rehearsal video clip) will interpret that section and others through dance.

In the second half of the play, the biblical characters become members of the church, with, for example, the magi becoming the ministers, said Staton.

Described as a “choral an dance celebration,” the play that Hughes wrote is a very modular creation with opportunities for groups to fill in sections with your own local favorite musical, dance, or dramatic additions.

Staton has done that . There will be some delightful surprises, she said.

“This one is a re-introduction. We are re-learning the script,” Yarbor said. While she will interpret through some dance intervals aspects of the Christmas story, Saturday’s performance will be “mostly music,” added Staton.

The Long Wharf is providing props and costumes, and admission “donations” are very modest. Reserve seats by calling (203) 677-6779 or emailing .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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