SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The Baird Theater in South Orange was home to 15 singing voices the weekend of Dec. 15 to 17, when interACT Theater Productions teamed up with the South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race to stage “Black Nativity,” a holiday musical that takes the shape of its cast and crew. A retelling of the nativity story with a predominantly black cast, the show was written by Langston Hughes. Produced and rehearsed during a short six-week period, the show gave everyone in the cast a moment to shine.
“It’s one of the great plays left from the Harlem Renaissance,” Brandi Chavonne Massey, the production’s director, said in an interview with the News-Record on Dec. 15. Massey is a veteran performer, having acted in Broadway shows such as “Wicked,” “Caroline or Change” and “Jekyll and Hyde.” But last weekend’s show marked her debut as a director.
“There’s so much you can do with it,” Massey said, referencing the 2013 film version of the story starring Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett and Mary J. Blige. “It’s about a family trying to keep it together for Christmas, and is infused with old time religion and old music.”
The narrative is based on Hughes’ script and infused with gospel music. When she took the helm as director, Massey started by looking at Hughes’ other work.
“I started by reading Langston Hughes,” she said. “There’s a lot of flexibility in what you want the audience to take away from it. I wanted a contemporary edge.”
The flexibility comes from music that is all in the public domain, meaning that there are no copyright laws protecting it; this allows songs to be swapped in and out based on what story the director wants to tell and the actors to be featured. Massey made the character of the reverend an integral part of her production.
“The most important person is the reverend,” she said. “He carries the show. Then there’s the church women, Mary and Joseph, and the shepherds. It’s unified as an ensemble cast. In a singing sense, there’s a gospel influence. I wanted that raw church talent.”
Nick Clarey, the show’s producer, said that one advantage of “Black Nativity” is that everyone in the cast gets a chance to shine. The reverend character has his own song, as do a few others in the show.
“Everybody can be the lead,” Clarey said in an interview with the News-Record on Dec. 15. “Everyone has some big feature. They’re part of an ensemble project, but they still get to be a lead. They bring their own flavor to it. Every show is different, and that’s the beauty of it.”
Clarey said that while some of the cast members are professional performers, in fact some have little to no stage experience.
“There are things that we can all relate to. Those who are familiar with it can add to it, and some can learn,” he said. “It’s all community and volunteer based, and I think we put something together that will allow people to be proud of it.”
“Directing is actually easier,” Massey joked, addressing the difference between being on stage and working behind the scenes. “It’s fun to use your imagination and see how other people work in their own form.”
This is not the first time Massey has worked with interACT. She has hosted the theater’s benefit concert for the last few years, and said she always wanted the opportunity to sit in the director’s chair, and it finally worked out this holiday season.
All the ticket proceeds from the show went to the Community Coalition on Race, the local organization that aims to “achieve and sustain the benefits of a thriving, racially integrated and truly inclusive community that serves as a model for the nation,” according to its mission statement.
InterACT has previously worked with the Coalition on Race, and Clarey was happy to bring the group back into the fold to support both the production and the work they do in both communities.
“They’re wonderful,” he said. “They do incredible work, and we’ve had a great relationship with them. It helps us get out there, and we can support the work they do out in the world, as well as in South Orange and Maplewood.”
Margaret Leone was featured in the show as one of the church elders, and as a professional performer, was familiar with the show before taking part in it. She said being under Massey’s direction was a great experience.
“It’s been wonderful,” Leone said in an interview with the News-Record on Dec. 15. “She’s got lots of years behind her and is really creative, and is making it different than any production I’ve seen before. I’ve seen it on a big stage, and this one is more intimate and personal.”
Leone said audiences who went to see the show left in the spirit of the season.
“If you’re not in the Christmas season, you will be,” she joked. “You’ll be feeling it. It’s a great way to bring people together.”