Described as jubilant gospel music, dramatic dance, Black vernacular, and Biblical narrative, this staged holiday tradition has been a staple in Black communities all over the country, sixty-two years strong. In Seattle, audiences enjoyed Black Nativity from 1998-2012. The classic is coming back!
Co-founder of The Hansberry Project, University of Washington School of Drama Head of Directing, and celebrated theater director, Valerie Curtis-Newton has been tapped by Intiman Theatre to bring new life to our beloved classic. Just after opening her latest directorial gem, Andrew Creech’s Last Drive to Dodge at Taproot Theatre, I spoke to Curtis-Newton about her vision for Black Nativity. Following are excerpts from that conversation, edited for length.
How did Intiman Theatre make the decision to bring Black Nativity back?
Pre-pandemic there was a meeting to figure out if all of the original players who were still around would want to be a part of making something happen. It didn’t happen out of those conversations, but the idea didn’t really die. Jennifer Zeyl and the folks at The Intiman reached out to me and said, “We found it in our budget to do a version of Black Nativity this year, we’d love for you to direct it, are you interested?” My response was, “I think the community needs a gathering moment, and so yes, I’ll participate.” I needed everyone to understand that we are not trying to do the Black Nativity that people are familiar with. We want to honor that, but we also want to make it something different. We were able to get Sam Townsend as the chorale director, and Vania Bynum to do the choreography, and I will work with the actors and so we have a nice triumvirate of people who were familiar with what Black Nativity used to be, but who are all interested in a new spin and in starting a new process of evolving it.
How difficult do you think it will be for people who may have only experienced the Black Nativity that has been traditionally produced here in a particular way, to embrace something different?
This is definitely something that we have thought about. We don’t have Patrinell Wright with us anymore. We don’t have Reverend McKinney with us anymore. And anything that we try to do would be trying to live up to those standards of a certain kind of excellence. I’ve been thinking about this a little like sorbet, the palate cleanser before the next course. This just gets people focused again on having a Black Nativity gathering, and mustering the energy and support that lets Intiman know, and other producers know that the community wants to have it back and wants to have the feeling of gathering back.
You mentioned Sam Townsend who will be the chorale director. Starting there, how big of a choir will we see, and will voices from the past also be incorporated into this new version?
It will be around 20-25 voices and Sam is largely reaching out to folks, many of whom have done it before so yes, there will be some familiar voices and then there will be some new voices. We’re trying to open the door to new things. We’re not completely untethering it, we’re putting our own stamp on it, but the cornerstone of that first act is what it has always been.
Another element is the choreography and you mentioned that Vania Bynum would be doing that. What are you looking for as the director, in the choreography to move the story forward?
I think we’re interested in it being as muscular a story as possible, and the movement and the dancers add that physicalized element. That expression of worship and praise, and theatricality that comes through the dancers is important. Vania definitely understands that. But again, we have this great legacy handed to us by these folks who have gone home and left it for us to do. The great thing about legacy work is that we are expected and entitled to make it our own. That is in fact what our role is – to take the gift that we’ve been given to make it our own reflecting our current time, and to leave it for those who are going to come after to do the same thing.
I believe that Kabby, Pat, and Reverend McKinney would expect us to do no less. I don’t think any of them would be hell-bent on our just doing what they did and stifling our own impulses and our own artistic voices. I think they would be happy that we find something to build on what they have already made.
It’s a really joyful piece. Can you describe the kind of joy that you hope audiences will experience in this new imagining of Black Nativity? What do you want them to feel?
The desire to pat your foot, be moved to rock from side to side, to find yourself smiling and want to laugh or shout amen here and there whether that’s your tradition or not. I also want us to be able to share the fact that we’ve come through some things. There have been things that we’ve come through as part of our history as Black people in the Americas, the United States in particular, that we have reason to celebrate our faith. I feel like the opportunity to express that and to share that kind of elation that comes from it, and the release is important. There is something amazingly powerful about a multitude of voices joined together, sharing worship, sharing praise. That does something to the spirit and that’s part of the joy feeling I want folks to have - a lightening of the spirit and a sense of being a part of something bigger than themselves.
One of the reasons I make theater is because I love the idea that it can help people feel less alone. This kind of production is exactly the kind of work that inspires us to feel a part of something. I think that if people come out of the theatre smiling at each other and giving a “howdy neighbor” nod we will have done a good thing.
Given Black Nativity audiences were part subscriber base and part Black community, do you think this is going to introduce you as a director to a new audience?
I think that there are a lot of Black folks that have not seen my work. As an artist, you could get tied into knots wanting people to love everything you do. I hope to bring my level of expertise and a sense of discernment to the work and give it the best we’ve got with the resources we have.
Do you have a measure of success?
If the people involved in making it ultimately feel proud of having made it, I would love for the people in the audience to enjoy it. I absolutely would. I’m just trying to bring out the best in the people who are making it so that we have our own sense of community, and then we can offer the invitation to the greater community to participate. If a few heads nod during the production, I’ll be okay.
Will you do it again?
Let me get through this one first and we’ll see. If the people like it I’d be happy to do it again and if they like the idea of it and I’m not the one to direct, I’m okay with that too.
I guess I hear you saying that you believe that Black Nativity is an important production to be annualized.
Absolutely! And it might in fact be good for it to move from director to director and for us to see lots of iterations of Black Nativity.
Will there be songbooks?
Yes, there will be! We decided that the program would likely be a songbook. In the second act, some of the actors will share some of Langston Hughes' poetry. Not the sermonette, but actually some of Langston Hughes's poetry. And some of it is definitely religious in nature and some of it is just Langston’s view of Black folks in the world.
What is your history with Intiman Theatre?
When I first moved here in 1993, I met a few Black women who introduced me to the community. Tawnya Pettiford-Wates and Jackie Moscou, who were kind of the mavens of Black theatre at that time. Jackie was working at Intiman directing Flying West, and I was a grad student and asked if I could assistant direct. I assisted Jackie on Flying West at Intiman, which was the first theatre organization that I ever worked for. Once I got out of grad school, (former Intiman artistic director) Kate Whoriskey asked me to direct All My Sons which was the last show mounted at the old Intiman space. I did Trouble In Mind when Intiman came back, as part of the first festival that Intiman did in its revived state. I did Dirty Story, Bulrusher, and Wedding Band for them as well. I’ve directed 5 or 6 shows for Intiman.
You also have a pretty deep history with local Black playwrights. Talk a little about the Black playwrights that you’ve worked with as well.
Andrew Lee Creech wrote Last Drive to Dodge and I’ve worked with him on two or three projects. I’ve been working with Reginald A. Jackson on The History of Theatre and we premiered part one in January of this year, and we will do a workshop of part two in October. I’ve worked with some of the women writers from The Mahogany Project, Alma Davenport’s (Restoration of the Arts) project, and I’ve worked with Cheryl West. We’ve got a lot of writers in town who are doing things and more of them coming along all the time. Part of what The Hansberry Project is trying to do is give them a lifeline, an oxygen hose to keep them going until their work catches traction.
I’m hopeful that people will get a sense of how you have been working on behalf of the Black community of writers and playwrights, actors, choreographers, and Black Theatre for a very long time.
I do feel really proud that many of the theatre structures in the city now include people of color in decision-making positions. And we remember going on and on for a very long time about how we weren’t represented in decision-making positions and I feel really proud of the work that has resulted in the next generation having the opportunity to shape our experiences and shape the theatre landscape in Seattle. A lot of what I do is behind the scenes but the fruit of what I do is very visible.
What’s that one thing you always tell your cast or playwrights that you’re working with?
I tell them that I go through the process and I pray for the moment that it doesn’t suck. If we can get to a place where we know it doesn’t suck, then art is possible. I also tell them that I promise if they give their all, I will not let them look bad!
Black Nativity runs December 12 - December 30, 2023, at The Broadway Performance Hall.