Thoroughly Modern, Musical and Meaningful: Langston Hughes’ ‘Black Nativity’

Photo | Mac Kennedy (L to R) Tyrell Martin, Jasmine Prather, Mars’ Harika Coleman and Stephanie Terry rehearse “Black Nativity,” which opens at the Arts Barn on Friday, Dec. 2.

Photo | Mac Kennedy
(L to R) Tyrell Martin, Jasmine Prather, Mars’ Harika Coleman and Stephanie Terry rehearse “Black Nativity,” which opens at the Arts Barn on Friday, Dec. 2.

Langston Hughes knew how to tell a story. In his 1961 play, “Black Nativity,” the 20th century American poet, social activist, novelist and playwright told a very old one: the “beautiful story of the birth of Christ with poetic verse and a wealth of traditional gospel music,” said Kelly Chauncey, who along with his partner, Kashi-Tara, adapted, directed and choreographed the production that will run Dec. 2 to 18 on the stage of the Kentlands Arts Barn.

The couple’s Silver Spring-based companies ANKH Repertory Theatre (ART) and The Finest! Performance Foundation, Inc. delighted Arts Barn audiences with two previous shows—an “edgy, thought-provoking original work, ‘A Change Gon’ Come,’” chosen for D.C.’s March 4 Atlas INTERSECTIONS Festival, and the contemporary Broadway musical, “The Wiz.” Their production of “Black Nativity” will use dialogue, narrative, African dance and drumming, pantomime, gospel songs and folk spirituals.

No two productions of “Black Nativity” are the same because of “the beauty of Hughes’ vision,” Chauncey explained. He said the playwright “afforded future generations (the ability) to mix their own music and indeed stories within the context of the script. He saw a way to keep this work timeless by giving producers and directors the opportunity to make the script their own while keeping the integrity of the story alive and well.” And that is precisely, he said, “what attracted us to this work.”

What Chauncey and Kashi-Tara did in their adaptation of Hughes’ work, Chauncey said, is “weave in a very modern story that deals with a family tragedy and their difficulties processing what has happened. An unexpected guest forces them to look inward to discover the power, beauty and indeed the gift of life—all while discovering and sharing the story of the Nativity in a way that only Langston Hughes could do.”

For Kashi-Tara, the “greatest challenge … on this production has been trying to create a story out of Langston Hughes’s script that is relevant to today. Kelly and I wanted to show the weight, responsibility, sacrifice and fearlessness that it takes when deciding to bring life into this world. We wanted to show how Mary was also faced with these challenges during biblical times.”

The singers “are indeed truly special,” Chauncey said, citing Monisha Coleman who “brings a raw, unfiltered honesty and depth of character” to her role (Ziwadi), and recording artist Edward Byrd (Chinaka). Most are veterans, but talented young newcomers have joined the group: 17-year-old Azaria Oglesby, “a rising star who exudes stage confidence, smooth dance moves and a killer vocal delivery” (DC Metro Theatre Arts on her 2015 performance in “Bring it On”) and “the vocally gifted” Mars’Harika Coleman.

As for the voices, Kashi-Tara concurred. “The most exciting and pleasurable experience has been working with such amazing singers,” she said. “We have so much talent in our communities, and we are honored to be given the opportunity to create a platform for their voices to be heard.” An added benefit is that “this musical gives us a chance to scout out talent for our next production, ‘Dream Girls,’” coming to the Arts Barn in June.

The singing will consist of “a gumbo of original and classic gospel and holiday songs written by Joshua Sommerville as well as Levi Terrell’s new arrangements of modern contemporary gospel songs,” Chauncey said. As the production’s music and vocal director, Sommerville, a Gaithersburg native who sings, plays piano, composes and teaches music at Germantown’s Neelsville Middle School, uses the approach “that has gotten me everywhere in life: love. Music and love work hand in hand. When you connect the two, you have an unstoppable force that creates success, triumph, awareness of self and others, positive pride, and so much more,” he said. “I focus on love of each individual. Love of the script. Love of the music. Love of the storyline.”

Given the nuances, music and outstanding talent added to an extraordinary play, Chauncey said, “what we hopefully end up with is a heartwarming story about the strength and resolve of family and the unapologetic, unyielding faith and love of the holiday season … with a very special birth!”

Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity” runs Dec. 2 to 18 at the Arts Barn. Shows start at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. For tickets and information, call 301.258.6394 or visit