"Black Nativity" Retelling Takes Center Stage in Winston-Salem
“Nativity According to the Gospels” – NC Black Rep’s joyous spin on "Black Nativity" – has become a soul-stirring holiday tradition in Winston-Salem.
Each December, a uniquely vibrant tradition takes center stage in Winston-Salem, captivating audiences with its timeless message of faith, love, and the power of storytelling. Presented annually by the North Carolina Black Repertory Company (aka, NC Black Rep), “Nativity According to the Gospels” offers a modern spin on Langston Hughes’ holiday classic “Black Nativity,” blending gospel, music, and drama while retelling the story of Jesus’ birth.
This December, the North Carolina Black Repertory Company (NC Black Rep) will present the 23rd annual “Nativity According to the Gospels” at Hanesbrands Theater in Winston Salem. Each year, the company auditions dancers, musicians, and actors to play a part in this production that Jackie Alexander, producing artistic director of NC Black Rep, calls the “heart and soul of the season.” The show is written, choreographed, and directed by Mabel P. Robinson, former artistic director for NC Black Rep from 2007-2016.
A Timeless Tale
This will be the 23rd year NC Black Rep has presented a version of “Black Nativity” to local audiences. Each year, the company auditions dancers, musicians, and actors to play a part in this production that Jackie Alexander, producing artistic director of NC Black Rep, calls the “heart and soul of the season.” The show is written, choreographed, and directed by Mabel P. Robinson, former artistic director for NC Black Rep from 2007-2016.
“Many people say it is the beginning of the holiday for them,” Robinson said. “It feels like a family reunion with three generations of performers participating.”
The show features West African-style dance, costumes, drums, gospel music, and spoken word. The audience participates through foot stomping, hand clapping, and singing. Robinson’s sets are minimal and used as part of the play’s action, helping accentuate the elaborate West African-style costumes designed by Frenchie Slade. The production is further enhanced by technical director Arthur Reese, whose scenic and lighting design creates a visual feast.
According to Robinson, who has directed the production since its debut, the show is constantly evolving. It’s a familiar story, yet told in a different way, which keeps crowds engaged. “Audiences come back each year, bringing new generations with them,” she says. “The community takes ownership, supporting and participating in this production. They show us a lot of warmth.”
Evolving the Story
Robinson (right) moved to Winston Salem in 1983 for a six-month teaching position with UNC School of the Arts, and she has been here ever since. She soon began working with the late Larry Leon Hamlin, founder of NC Black Rep, who presented a space to do the creative work she wanted to do. The two eventually decided to create a Christmas show, and Robinson felt Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity” was perfect for this area because of the deep spirituality, strong sense of community, and wealth of local talent.
The show debuted locally in 2001, becoming an instant hit with local audiences. NC Black Rep followed the same script for the next 17 years, making only slight modifications. However, things took a dramatic turn in 2019 when Robinson decided to refresh the entire show. She reworked the choreography and refocused the narrative, changing the perspective to reflect her personal childhood memories. Renamed “Nativity According to the Gospels,” the story now centers on a spunky 7-year-old girl, Ava, as she listens to her grandmother retelling the story of Jesus’ birth. “The story is always the same,” Robinson said, “but it differs according to who is telling it.”
Robinson’s dazzling dance sequences are complemented by soaring musical numbers played by a live orchestra. Longtime music director Tony Gillion will once again guide the orchestra with a colorful mix of songs ranging from gospel to African dance to Hip Hop and spoken word. Robinson says that Gillion and other team members find a way to best use the talent available each year. “The company is special because it allows individuals to hone their crafts,” says Robinson, a Julliard graduate with several Broadway productions and feature films to her name.
The actors, dancers, musicians, and crew all work together, creating a production that’s equal parts beautiful, poignant, exuberant, and uplifting. “We hope the show rekindles the magic of Christmas and reminds us what the season is truly about,” Robinson says.
Of course, “Nativity” is only one of a handful of shows produced annually by NC Black Rep. The organization is best known for hosting the biennial International Black Theatre Festival, which brings more than 65,000 people to Winston Salem every other summer. (Known for years as the National Black Theatre Festival, the festival recently unveiled a new name and logo ahead of the 2024 festival, which is set for July 29–Aug 3.) “A lot of people in the city don’t realize how important [the festival] is to black actors,” said Alexander. “We call it ‘Black Theatre Holy Ground,’ and people make their pilgrimage to it every two years.”
Fortunately, you don’t have to wait until next summer to experience this ‘Holy Ground’ firsthand. It will be here throughout the holiday season, so start planning your pilgrimage to Winston-Salem now.
IF YOU GO
“Nativity According to the Gospels,” presented by N.C. Black Repertory Co.
- Where: Hanesbrands Theatre, 209 N. Spruce St, Winston-Salem
- When: Dec. 1-3, 7-10, 14-17
- Times: Thu-Sat, 7:30 p.m.; Sun, 3 p.m. (Saturday matinees will also be held Dec. 9, 16 at 3 p.m.)
- Show length: 2.5 hours, including a 15-minute intermission
- Cost: $35, $30 for students and seniors, $20 for children under 15
- More info: The show is 2.5 hours long (including a 15-minute intermission.) For more details or to purchase tickets, go to NCBlackRep.org/nativity