Black Nativity 2010A cast of some 45 actors, singers, dancers and community members brings the theatrical gospel celebration BLACK NATIVITY back to the Count Basie Theatre this Sunday, December 27, in the return of a local tradition from Dunbar Repertory Company. (Photo courtesy Richard Krauss)  

When it was first presented to Broadway audiences back in 1961, the theatrical experience known as Black Nativity was little more than a 40-page outline of a script on paper; an adaptation of the Gospel of St. Luke that was infused with the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes. In their fully fleshed form, however, the words came to life through a mix of traditional spirituals like “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” African American dance forms, colorful costumes, and an improvisatory element that encourages local clergy, schoolchildren and public officials to get into the act everywhere that Nativity has become the stuff of tradition, from Savannah, GA to Seattle, WA and numerous points between.

Beginning about the turn of the new millennium, Black Nativity became the stuff of Monmouth County tradition, when Darrell Lawrence Willis Sr. first presented its “powerful message of joy, hope, victory and liberation” at Manasquan’s landmark Algonquin Theatre, in a staging by Dunbar Repertory Company, the producer-director’s grassroots troupe dedicated to presenting the works of African American playwrights. Re-emerging at the Count Basie Theatre in 2010 (where Willis, a now-retired faculty member at Brookdale Community College, has served as a board member for ten years), the production quickly staked out a place as a year-end centerpiece of community life for performing artists and church congregations from all around Monmouth. Following a one-year hiatus, Black Nativity returns to the Basie stage this Sunday afternoon, December 27, for its fifth Red Bank appearance — a re-energized and highly anticipated extension of the Yueltide season, about which Willis found time to chat with redbankgreen.

redbankgreen: Since you found a new home for BLACK NATIVITY at the Count Basie, the show has gone on through the aftermath of record-breaking blizzards and Hurricane Sandy…and you even survived Hollywood’s attempt to make a movie out of a very unfilm-able property. But, for whatever reason, the show did NOT go on last year.

DARRELL LAWRENCE WILLIS SR.: No, even though we got it together that first year right after Sandy, we were still feeling the effects of the hurricane last year. We lost several key people who had gotten displaced from their homes in Long Branch and other towns — and since so many people had seen their lives decimated by the storm, and just couldn’t commit to our schedule, we thought it best to take a year off and regroup here in 2015. But we’re back and going strong, and now that I’m retired I feel that I can get really hands-on with this project again; work with the young people and look for some other things to take on — like To Be Young, Gifted and Black, which we’ll be doing at the Algonquin Theatre in Manasquan this February.

For a show that presents just one single performance, you do run a pretty tight rehearsal schedule, correct? 

We started rehearsing for this year’s show on September 12th! And then for three hours every Saturday and Sunday after that, with the exception of Thanksgiving weekend. It’s a major commitment for our cast members, who range in age from 7 years old to 75, and who gladly give up a big piece of their Christmas each year to do this. But this event has taken on a life of its own…it represents the largest African American community outreach project that the Count Basie does each year.

How big of a cast are you working with for the December 27 show? And are there some new faces involved? 

Previously we’d work with a cast of about 35, and now we’re at 45, which makes this production the biggest one ever. We have a number of returning people, like Lorraine Stone ‘The Wisdomkeeper;’ our narrator Tony Thigpen from Neptune; Hollis Cooper, who sings in Holiday Express; plus Ray Dothard (a highly-decorated, retired Tuskegee Airman who piloted Nelson and Winnie Mandela’s 747 during their famous visit to the U.S. in 1990) — and our longtime music director Gwen Moten (a noted concert artist and educator who served as director of the Newark Boys Choir and appeared in a 1960s European tour of NATIVITY). Gwen and Lorraine go back to day one with this project, but I’d say that about half the cast are oldtimers, with about 20 new people.

We have an all new choreographer this year — Val Whitaker, who studied with Alvin Ailey and who has a studio in Long Branch. Our three piece jazz band features Dr. D. Dexter Allgood on keyboards; a very well known historian of African American spirituals, with Tim Douglas from Neptune on bass, and Craig Redmond on drums.

And a big part of what makes this project unique is the participation of people who otherwise aren’t experienced actors or stage performers… 

We have great participation from the area churches, with a pretty stable contingent from Pilgrim Baptist in Red Bank, including ‘The First Lady of Pilgrim’ Wilma Porter. We have about ten people from Calvary Baptist, who have given us great support over the last three years. We’ve got people from Trinity A.M.E. in Long Branch; Bethel A.M.E. in Freehold; plus churches in Asbury, Neptune, Howell, Manlapan, Marlboro, Allentown, Millstone Township. We have volunteers who help us get our postcards and posters for Black Nativity into all of the churches in the area. And I mean ALL the churches!

We have become a very large extended family, and it’s grown to the point that the community looks forward to the event and expects it each year. As I said, the event has taken on a life of its own. It’s the one place you’ll be able to catch up with everybody…a place for everyone to dress up, meet up, and see each other around the holidays.

Take it here for tickets ($20 – $25) for the 4 p.m. performance of BLACK NATIVITY — and as always, 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.