Late autumn in the Northwest brings crisp air, soggy leaves and early nightfall. In Portland, ‘tis also the season for “The Nutcracker,” “A Christmas Carol” and “The Santaland Diaries.” But over the last few years, a new holiday performance has joined that must-see list.
“I thought ‘Black Nativity’ was uplifting, that’s why we decided to do it,” said Connie Carley, the managing director of PassinArt: A Theater Company.
Carley is a founding member of PassinArt, one of Portland’s oldest African-American theater companies. The nonprofit group was organized in the early 1980s around the mission of “passing art, culture and history to the next generation.” PassinArt’s productions seek to entertain, educate and inspire artists and audiences while addressing critical issues facing the African-American community.
“Black Nativity” is a retelling of the nativity story through the talents of Harlem Renaissance author Langston Hughes. It was one of the first plays written by an African-American playwright to be staged off-Broadway.
“Langston Hughes wrote the play because he didn’t see anything that dealt with the holidays that was for Black people,” said Jerry Foster, PassinArt’s artistic director. Foster also frequently acts in and directs the company’s productions.
“It was originally named ‘Wasn’t It a Mighty Day’ and it had people like Alvin Ailey in it,” Foster said. First performed in New York in December 1961, today “Black Nativity” is staged around the country as a recurring holiday celebration.
Back in Portland for its fifth year, “Black Nativity” presents a traditionally Christian story. But religion is not the point, Carley said.
“Historically you can’t talk about Black history without talking about the Black church,” she said. “The Black church historically wasn’t there just for enhancing your faith. It provided services to the community. A lot of the social justice movements came out of the Black church, a lotta the leaders came out of the Black church. And then of course it was a reprieve from the oppression that was going on from slavery.”
Last year, PassinArt’s production of “Black Nativity” was staged at Greater St. Stephens Missionary Baptist Church, a modest and picturesque neighborhood chapel in inner Northeast Portland.
Actors portraying Mary and Joseph wander through the assembly in a depiction of the Holy couple’s urgent search for lodging that culminates in joyful birth of the Christ child.
Set in the church’s intimate nave and filled with the soulful warmth and soaring voices of a gospel choir, the familiar story generates a palpable sense of unity in the diverse audience.
“Even people who are non-believers find themselves enjoying it,” Carley chuckled.
“The premise of ‘Black Nativity’ is to utilize the harmony — the rich, deep harmony that the group can bring, and I think that was one of the strong points of this past season,” said Foster, who directed the 2017 production.
Actor Kenneth Dembo, who played Joseph last year, agrees.
“The voices, and getting an opportunity to showcase people that live here,” Dembo said of his fellow Portlanders. “They’re talented and they’re wonderful and they’re accessible and they’re excited to be there. So how can you not be excited about that, you know? I love it.”
So does the audience.
“We saw ‘Black Nativity’ as a cultural event that could bridge communities,” Carley said.
This year “Black Nativity” moves to the Bethel AME Church in Northeast Portland, a larger venue to accommodate its growing audience. The production will be staged from Dec. 2–16, 2018 at the Bethel AME, with an additional holiday concert to be presented in Tualatin at Resurrection Catholic Parish Church on Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018.