The spirit of Langston Hughes will take center stage at Vintage Theatre during the month of December, as Black Nativity is featured throughout the holiday season.
Written by the Black poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, columnist and legendary leader of the Harlem Renaissance, Black Nativity is an ever-evolving adaptation of the famed Nativity story. Originally performed at Broadway’s 41st St. Theatre in December 1961, the holiday musical offers a modern retelling of the traditional account of the Nativity story from an African American perspective.
Director Alicia “Lisa” Young says the play shares “The beauty of the Black American and the Black church experience. It is a global experience within the Black community. It shows how our forefathers and mothers praised through all that we’ve been through.”
The show, which runs Dec. 1 to 30, is the third professional directorial project for Young. Her first was Reach, produced outdoors on a patio in the middle of the pandemic, with Misfits Theater Company in Boulder. The second was Catamount’s world premiere of One Way-Back Day in Boulder last year. She has performed the virtual short Recipe: Shared-Gumbo, and devised Recipe at the Savoy with Theater Artibus. She portrayed Mrs. Breedlove in Pulitzer Prize winner Toni Morrison’s first novel The Bluest Eye at TheatreWorks. The actor-activist-director also wrote and produced Sojourners Project: Busing, which was performed in the parking lot of her father’s church.
Young’s father, the late Rev. Dr. Jules Smith, led Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church in Aurora for decades and was a recipient of the “2019 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Colorado Holiday Commission Humanitarian Award.” The long-time activist, who passed in October 2022, helped establish the Aurora, Colorado Chapter of the NAACP. Her family’s tradition of campaigning for social change as outspoken advocates for underrepresented communities lives on through her, and people are taking note.
Last month, the Colorado Black Women for Political Action recognized the theatrical virtuoso for her work bringing social justice and equity to the art industry through IDEAs, a grassroots arts organization she founded in 2020. Her mission is to galvanize equity, diversity and inclusion in response to the socio-political climate surrounding COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement.
She was “shocked and in awe” that her backstage activism was even noticed because much of her work is done behind the scenes.
In line with this modern age of social media which allows everyone to have a voice, Black Nativity tryouts called for everyday community people as opposed to a traditional, seasoned cast. The directors requested people who had never acted before. “These are people who would have tried, but never had the opportunity,” adds Young, a former board member of the Colorado Theatre Guild.
In preparation for the performance, she and assistant director, Mosés Brown, announced auditions with a targeted social media call: “I’m looking for a Black cast! Calling all Black/African American actors, singers, dancers and community members, singers, dancers, church folk who want to try a paid professional gig.”
Social media has been “a blessing in several ways,” according to Young, a long-time drama teacher at Aurora Public Schools, who also serves as an educational assistant. “It’s faster than making 100 phone calls and having emails that are obsolete. There are so many different groups and pages to post and announce on.”
“Casting is a huge part of the overall process,” says Brown, who does vocal and live acting at Pave Creative in Kansas City, Missouri.
Brown has a unique connection to Black Nativity. During the pandemic, he lived in Denver and was cast as lead vocalist for the musical. Unfortunately, the show couldn’t gain traction during the pandemic. However, he built on the experience and returned on the other side as an assistant director. Some of his credits include Tomfoolery: The Music and Lyrics of Tom Lehrer and Black Nativity at The Aurora Fox Arts Center, Little Shop of Horrors at PACE Center, Songs for a New World at Platte Valley Players, and The First and Second National Tour of The Motones and Jerseys: In concert.
Looking forward to “being a part of a piece that is very relevant at this time for marginalized communities,” Brown says, “This is for everybody. It is for us as a community. So many different people of color. I want everybody from all areas of the walk of life to attend. People will be touched.”
Going into her third project as director, Young says she has learned that she has “to build community.”
As she directs the musical, she stresses that the actors should not be in competition with other actors; they should be in competition with themselves to be the best that they can be. She also encourages those who have been “taught to be modest and not to brag” to let their light shine.
She understands that this will be a unique experience for those who have not done this professionally.
There will be a “bunch of people nervous, and a bunch of people serious about talent. It’s different from singing in church on Sunday,” says Young, who is a Denver Urban Spectrum African Americans Who Make a Difference honoree, 2021 Broncos Touchdown for Teachers recipient, and 2022 True West Award Winner for her work with IDEAs.
The show will feature 30 actors, including 10 youth spanning ages 7-17. IDEAs is funding the youth camp and their stipends to build a new generation of theatre lovers and performers.
This adaptation of Black Nativity is rich with Colorado theater royalty. Young’s mentor, Jo Bunton Keel, who co-founded Eulipions in 1982, is part of the Black Nativity planning. Her theater company was known for presenting the play annually before it shut down. Musical directors for the play are Arthur E. Robinson II and Santemu Aakhu.
Black Nativity will play in the Jeffrey Nickelson Auditorium at Vintage Theatre. Nickelson’s daughter and Vintage Theatre Board President, ShaShauna Staton, has led the board’s concerted efforts to include voices of color at all levels, including the selection of Young for this role. Staton and her son are also a part of the cast.
“Theatre traditions are being built again,” notes Young, referring to a central theme that is important to both she and Brown. The Black Nativity performances will be steeped in circle-of-life moments, with everyone connected to the project working diligently to make it a success..
Editor’s Note: For more information and ticket purchasing, visit https://www.vintagetheatre.org/performances/blacknativity.