ROOM FOR ‘NATIVITY,’ AT THE COUNT’S CRIB

lorrainedarrellLorraine Stone is in the cast, and Darrell Lawrence Willis Sr. directs, as BLACK NATIVITY comes to the Count Basie stage for the first time on December 30.

By TOM CHESEK

If you’ve been in (or anywhere near) the Count Basie Theatre recently, you probably noticed that the venerable venue is a house of traditions throughout the holiday season — a host harbor for Christmas concerts, New Year’s blasts, allstar benefits, Nutcrackers and Scrooges — all of them staples of local life.

Beginning Thursday, December 30, the Count’s crib opens its curtain for the first time on a homegrown edition of a stage tradition that’s become the centerpiece of community Christmas celebrations, from Boston to Seattle and lots of big-league towns between.

First produced on Broadway in 1961, Black Nativity combines the Gospel of St. Luke with the poetry of the late Langston Hughes and a set of folk spirituals and hymns for a theatrical experience that’s often custom-tailored to every town it appears in. It’s the kind of presentation in which the stage swells with local children; in which hometown preachers play a big part and the Three Wise Men are often cast from the ranks of neighborhood civic and business leaders.

For several seasons, the play staked a Shore area home at Manasquan’s Algonquin Arts Theatre, in a production by producer-director Darrell Lawrence Willis Sr. and his Dunbar Repertory Company. A Brookdale Community College faculty member and a participant on the Basie’s board, Willis has kept busy in recent years with such projects as the annual Juneteenth Urban Arts Festival in Long Branch and winter’s upcoming staging of A Raisin in the Sun at BCC.

The redbankgreen Drama Desk caught up with the director as he found “room at the inn” for a re-established Yuletide tradition, here in Red Bank.

redbankgreen: I’m aware that you drew some nice-sized audiences during your run down in southern Monmouth. How long has it been since you last staged Nativity?

DARRELL LAWRENCE WILLIS SR.: About six years ago, 2004. Since that time, no matter what I’ve been working on, whether it was the works of August Wilson or the Juneteenth festival, the number one thing that people ask me about is Black Nativity. They’d tell me ‘the show has been such a blessing to us,’ and they all want to know when we’re doing it again.

When we were doing it down in Manasquan, it became the centerpiece of the holiday for so many people — they’d come out dressed up in their Sunday bests, and they’d use the show as a meet-up place for everyone who they couldn’t get around to visiting during the holidays. We’d have busloads of people coming in from all over the area. I remember one afternoon show where we had hundreds of walk-ins lined up around the block, looking to get in. And another good thing for the cast and crew was that people would bake goodies for us. They’d drop off all kinds of cakes, pies, cookies backstage.

Well, that in and of itself sounds like all the reason you’d need. What ultimately convinced you that the time was right to bring the production back to the area, and how did the Basie become involved?

With the state of the economy these days, we all need some holiday cheer. When you know hard times, this is the loneliest time of year, and for a lot of people, our show was the only time all year that they’d go out to something like this, see a show with hundreds of their neighbors.

What really got it going is that I’ve been on the board at the Count Basie for six or seven years, and (Basie CEO) Numa Saisselin asked me if I had any thoughts about some community-outreach sort of events that we could do here. I mentioned Black Nativity; Numa could see the look on my face and I could see the look on his face — we looked at each other and said, let’s do it!

Having had such a long hiatus, there are probably going to be some differences in how the show plays here, and I’m sure a lot of new faces.

There are a lot of new people involved — along with a number of people I’ve worked with before, like Lorraine Stone. We have about forty in the cast — eight dancers, four women as the shepherds, a piano-bass-drums band, and a whole lot of kids!

A student at Brookdale named James Brandon is going to be the narrator — and I’m really excited about our musical director, Gwen Moten from Newark. She’s a teacher and a trained opera singer. She directed the Newark Boys Choir, and she toured Europe in Black Nativity back in the 1960s.

It seems that the play is loose enough so that everyone who does it has a chance to add their own flourishes, as far as the songs and the casting. What are some of the ways that you custom-tailor it?

The script from Langston Hughes is only about forty pages — the creativity comes in as far as what songs you sing, where you place them in the show. It’s like building the perfect pizza, with all the toppings!

There are two acts, ‘A Child is Born’ and ‘Spread the Word.’ The first is performed in traditional costume, and the second is a little bit more jazz and pizazz. We encourage people to wear something nice that might be a little much for church — you know, that bright yellow dress from your closet; that hat from your aunt.

Would you say that the audience is primarily families, the sort of multi-generation crowd you might see at a holiday church service?

This really does play to all audiences. One of the most interesting things from when we were doing this at the Algonquin was that we never had an entirely black audience. The first year, probably about eighty percent black — then the second year as word got around, maybe sixty percent; eventually a fifty-fifty sort of mix.

So, does it look as if Black Nativity can take its place as one of the many seasonal traditions at the Basie? Where do you see it going over the next few years?

Ticket sales are moving very well — the interest is obviously there, and if we get 700 to 750 people our first year, that’d be respectable. Next year it could be 900 to 1000, and then the third year we’ll really be off and running.

Of course we’d like to schedule multiple performances in the future, an even bigger cast — who knows, maybe in a few years we’ll have live animals on stage! All I know for sure is that we’ll be working hard on it — this show is needed and it’s necessary. People are excited to see it here and if you’re going to make that kind of an impact on the community, you gladly give up your own Christmas and New Year’s to do it every year.

Tickets for the December 30th 7:30p performance of Black Nativity are priced at $19.50 and $24.50, and can be reserved right here.