On Thursday night at the Freedom Theater, Black Nativity: An African Musical Play brought attention to the many black lives lost due to genocide in Sudan.
Opening on the famed theater's 50th anniversary, Black Nativity was directed and choreographed by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, the newly named director of the company, who based it on the 1961 play by Langston Hughes. It has become something of a tradition to adapt Hughes' play to different locales, and this production sets it boldly in modern-day Darfur, Sudan. The theater partnered with Save Darfur and What's Up Africa to raise money and facilitate conversations on issues that country faces.
The musical juxtaposes the stories of the biblical Mary and Joseph and a Darfur Mary and Joseph. But Darfur Mary's husband, Joseph, is missing, and she's on the verge of giving birth in a refugee camp. Strong-willed, she staves off her pain until she finds him. Later in the play, she details how her village was ravaged by the militia and how she has seen her loved ones killed viciously. She yells, "There is no God in Darfur!"
"To move ahead, we must go back!" is the chant as Darfur Mary is taken back in time by the Angel Gabriel. It's through biblical Mary and Joseph's story and guidance that she regains hope.
The production channels the African principle of sankofa ("go back and get it”), which was also a theme in Maharaj’s The Ballad of Trayvon Martin, staged in May at the New Freedom.
The production of Black Nativity is both a singular twist to the story and a subtle declaration that the idea of a black Jesus isn't a twist at all. It smartly mixes generations, dance, and genres of music, from spirituals to traditional hymns, from "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" to "Lift Every Voice and Sing" to "Wade in the Water." The entire thing is pulled off by a cast of triple threats who act, sing, and dance, all with a Sudanese accent.
But there was a need for more dialogue to break up the singing and to guide viewers through the scenes.
What was clear, above all, was the Pan-African and cross-generational messages, with raised fists and vibrant choreography. Darfur Mary's hope amid so much tragedy and trauma is triumphant. Black Nativity is a production with strong music and an even stronger message.
Black Nativity: An African Musical Play. Through Dec. 18 at the New Freedom Theatre, Broad and Master Streets. Tickets: $35 general; $20 seniors, students, and groups. Information: 888-802-8998 or freedomtheatre.org.