Review: BLACK NATIVITY at Karma In Partnership With Cleveland Play House

BLACK NATIVITY leaves audience joyously singing praises of Afrocentric holiday musical

By: Dec. 04, 2023
Review: BLACK NATIVITY at Karma In Partnership With Cleveland Play House

Langston Hughes, the author of BLACK NATIVITY, now on stage at the Allen Theatre, in a joint production between Karamu, the country’s oldest black producing theater and the Cleveland Play House, the nation’s first resident company, was an American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist.

One of the earliest innovators of the literary art form called jazz poetry, Hughes is best known as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance.   

Langston Hughes had a special relationship with Cleveland, where he went to school and lived for a period of time.  He also had a special connection to Karamu Theatre, and with Reuben Silver, then the theatre’s Artistic Director, who was on the staff for 21 years, as well as Reuben’s wife, Dorothy Silver, the theatre’s guest artistic director. Many of his plays were developed and premièred at Karamu.

In an interview with Silver, Hughes said: "It is a cultural shame that a great country like America, with twenty million people of color, has no primarily serious colored theatre. There isn't. Karamu is the very nearest thing to it...It not only should a Negro theatre, if we want to use that term, do plays by and about Negroes, but it should do plays slanted toward the community in which it exists. It should be in a primarily Negro community since that is the way our racial life in America is still...It should not be a theatre that should be afraid to do a Negro folk play about people who are perhaps not very well-educated because some of the intellectuals, or intellectuals in quotes, are ashamed of such material.”

Hughes was not afraid, as is obvious in BLACK NATIVITY, to clearly identify a Black coming of the messiah, as his is an adaptation of the Nativity story told from a Black perspective.  It is noted as a trail-blazer as it is performed by an entirely black cast.  In addition, besides the choice of language and songs, it is narrated by a Griot, a traditional West African storyteller and praise singer.  (Think THE LION KING, which is also related by a Griot.)

Hughes was the author of the musical’s book, with the lyrics and music being derived from traditional Christmas carols, sung in gospel style, with a few songs created specifically for the show. It was first performed Off-Broadway on December 11, 1961, and was one of the first plays written by an African American to be staged in New York’s professional theatre district. 

Karamu’s BLACK NATIVITY has become a traditional local holiday treat, like Great Lake’s Theatre’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL and Cleveland Ballet’s THE NUTCRACKER.

The performance combines poetry, scripture, gospel music and dance in an Afrofuturist reimagining of the story.  It combines the past, the present, and the future in a continuum asserting that “we are there, we are here and we will be here for years to come.”

The long first act, which spotlights the birth of Christ, and includes such songs as “Joy to the World,” “What You Gonna Name Your Baby,” “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” and “Oh, Come All Ye Faithful,” was quite languid.  There was little audience reaction to much of the material, no call and response, which is so common in both Black church services and many theatrical performances at Karamu.

The second act, however, which started with a fashion parade, to highlight the incredible clothing created by costume designer Inda Blatch Geib, changed the pace.  Dynamic dancing, rockin’ musical arrangements and direct appeals to the audience, got the audience involved.

‘Meetin’ Here Tonight,” “We Shall Be Changed,” “His Will Be Done,” “Get Away Jordan,” and the over-the-top “Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody,” all incited strong reactions. 

The show ended with an extended curtain call featuring the reprise of “Joy to the World” and a closing medley.  Don’t leave early—the wrap-up is the highlight of the show!

The cast is strong.  The voices powerful and the dancing exciting (if not always coordinated.)

Musical arrangements by Dr. David M. Thomas, who also conducts the proficient orchestra, were often unique and presents a different mood than when the same songs are presented by a mainly white assemblage. 

Errin Weaver’s enthusiastic choreography, pushed her dancers to their limits! 

The scenic and digital media designs by T. Paul Lowry added a special visual excitement.

Capsule judgment:  Co-directors, Tony F. Siras and Errin Weaver, conceived a production that gives a true Afrocentric twist to the nativity that clearly stresses that Afro-people were there, are here and will be around for years to come!

BLACK NATIVITY runs through December 16 at the Allen Theatre.  For tickets call 216-400-7000 or