A ‘NATIVITY’ REBORN AS A LOCAL TRADITION

The Dunbar Repertory production of BLACK NATIVITY returns to the Count Basie Theatre on Friday.

In an interview that appeared here a little over a year ago, Brookdale Community College faculty member Darrell Lawrence Willis Sr. told the redbankgreen Drama Desk that “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.”

On December 30, 2010 — following a hiatus of some six years — the stage director and founder of Monmouth County based Dunbar Repertory Company revived his popular production of the theatrical presentation that combines the Gospel of St. Luke with the poetry of the late Langston Hughes and a custom-collected set of folk spirituals and hymns, bringing it to the boards of the Count Basie Theatre for the first time.

It’s a holiday offering that was designed to take its place among the scores of concerts, plays, ballets and benefits that have staked a traditional spot on the Count’s schedule each December — even if, for a moment there, it looked to be a Christmas miracle that was in danger of not coming to pass.

While it was scheduled a full four days after the record-crushing blizzard of December 26, the 2010 edition of Black Nativity made its Basie bow during an interlude in which thousands of Monmouth and Ocean County residents were still effectively held captive in their homes; trapped on barely plowed streets and largely unable to assemble in the spirit of this seasonal community experience.

Call it a miracle if you will, but Willis and a volunteer cast of some forty actors, dancers, musicians, schoolkids and community leaders were able to put on a show for an appreciative crowd that night — and here in what’s shaped up as a mild and mobile late December 2011, they’ll be “doing it again” when Black Nativity once again finds “room at the inn” in Red Bank this Friday night.

Newark-based music educator and opera singer Gwen Moten — a former director of the Newark Boys Choir who performed in a 1960s European tour of Nativity — rejoins Willis and choreographer Shani Love for the December 30 show, a production that promises the return of many of last year’s participants. Attendees are encouraged to “wear something nice that might be a little much for church,” appropriate to the “jazz and pizazz” spirit of the two-act performance — an event that’s historically been customized to each community that hosts it, with a multi-generational family audience, plenty of familiar faces on stage and a musical score that leaves plenty of room for creativity.

As Willis tells it, “It’s like building the perfect pizza, with all the toppings.”

You can read the full text of our chat with the Dunbar producing artistic director here. Tickets for Friday night’s performance of Black Nativity are priced at $19.50 and $24.50, and are available right here.