By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
Almost everyone is familiar with the story of the Nativity. Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem looking for a room. After a tiring search, they find a stable and it’s in that lowly stable that Mary gives birth to Jesus.
In 1961, however, Langston Hughes debuted a retelling of the story with his play “Black Nativity.” While the plot remains the same, Hughes’ version featured an all-Black cast who performed well-known gospel songs.
Since then, “Black Nativity” has become a staple of the performing arts world, and cities such as Milwaukee perform “Black Nativity” as an annual tradition.
Black Arts MKE, 929 N. Water St., has long been the driving force behind Milwaukee’s productions of “Black Nativity.” Although the organization forwent a performance last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the show is making a triumphant return and will be performed at the Marcus Performing Arts Center, 121 E. State St., starting Thursday, Dec. 9 through Sunday, Dec. 12.
Dimonte Henning, a Milwaukee-based actor and director, will be directing this year’s production. Henning has been a part of Milwaukee’s theatre scene since he was young and participated in Dominican High School’s summer theatre programs and Milwaukee Youth Theatre.
Later he attended and graduated from Milwaukee High School of the Arts and UW-Milwaukee. In 2018, he played the role of Joseph in the “Black Nativity,” and while he’ll be behind the scenes for this year’s production, his excitement remains the same.
What’s special about “Black Nativity” is that it is catered toward Black audiences, Henning said, and in this version, Act 2 takes place in Milwaukee. Each year, Black Arts MKE chooses a theme to incorporate into the production; past themes have included Black Girl Magic and Black Lives Matter. This year, the theme is ‘for the culture.’
The theme was chosen in part due to the events of last year and a half, including the onslaught of COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement. So much tragedy has happened in the Black community, Henning said, and this is something uplifting and joyful.
“We are still alive and still here because of the birth of Jesus,” he said.
While Black culture is always a strong component in every rendition of the play, Henning said this year’s production is going to showcase Black culture in new ways.
For example, there’s one section of the show that Henning calls ‘the trinity,’ where the cast performs three songs back-to-back. He praised the show’s choreographer, Christopher Gilbert, for incorporating both new-school and old-school dance moves into the movement.
Additional cultural references will be evident in the costumes, which were designed by Kyndal Johnson and Vato Vergara. The looks are more modernized, Henning said, and the designers have worked hard to make the cast look like one big ensemble.
Henning said the biggest Black culture moment is the sense of community that is evident throughout the show but especially in Act 2. It’s reminiscent of how Black families act when they have gatherings, he said.
For the rest of the Black culture references, Henning said audiences will have to come see the show.
“It’s so joyful,” Henning said. “You don’t have to be religious to enjoy this. We all have our challenges or our days and Mary and Joseph experience that in Act 1.”
This is a story about people going through the struggle, he said, and realizing that there are better days ahead. It’s a story about faith, and having faith in God and yourself, Henning added.
Theatre is a form of escapism, Henning said, but it’s also a form of expression. Theatre allows people to transport to another world for a couple hours, while at the same time, it holds a mirror up to society, he said.
“Theatre challenges us to live our lives differently and better,” Henning said. “I think art does that. The beautiful think about art, specifically theatre, is it holds a mirror up to reality.”
Tickets are available for purchase at the Marucs Center Performing Arts https://www.marcuscenter.org/show/black-nativity-2021.
For more information on Black Arts MKE visit https://www.blackartsmke.org/.