Mike Malone knows what he’s going to be doing for Christmas—the same thing he did last year, and the year before that. Since 1979, the director and choreographer has taken Langston Hughes’ holiday extravaganza Black Nativity to stages from Cleveland to Paris to right here in his beloved Washington.
Malone remembers first seeing excerpts of the play in the ’60s on a TV show, Lamp Unto My Feet, and later, as a student in Paris he saw posters for a touring company plastered all over the city. He wasn’t able to actually see a performance, but when he finally read the script it immediately “struck a bell.”
There are no stage notes in the script, just text, which Malone transforms into images he can bring to life on stage. Act 1 quotes directly from the Bible, and combined with dialogue in the black vernacular, tells the story of Christ’s birth. Act 2 takes viewers to a prayer service where parishioners praise God through testimony and song.
It is the music that drives Malone’s version of the play. “What we’ve done is try to illustrate how the ‘Good News’ has manifested itself through black music, from the spiritual to the most contemporary music,” he says, adding that the message of the gospel can be found in everything from reggae to rap.
The cast of area musicians, dancers, and singers takes on the task of representing famous gospel performers such as the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, Mahalia Jackson, and James Cleveland, as well as performing a medley of contemporary pieces. The dancing mixes ballet, traditional West African movement, and modern dance influenced by Louis Johnson, who originally choreographed Nativity, and Alvin Ailey.
While the show has been a huge success, selling out in advance every year, Malone laments that much black theater in Washington is undersupported. And with the increasing cuts in arts funding, the situation looks “pretty bleak” to the arts veteran. “There really is no resident black company in Washington, and something really needs to be done about that. There are plenty of companies, but they don’t have a home,” he says. “As a result, we lose a lot of talent.”
Malone, a Pennsylvania native whose studies brought him to Georgetown in 1960 and then led him to pursue graduate work at Howard and Catholic Universities, has done more than his share to preserve and develop the arts in Washington. He was instrumental in the formation of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and continues to work at Howard as the head of music theater.
Malone feels strongly that Black Nativity deserves a place among the seasonal perennials, remarking, “I think it’s important that blacks have an alternative. There are the Nutcrackers and the carols and Scrooge stories, and I think Nativity should be present among them.”—Holly Bass