by Renee Westbrook
Special to The Record December 01, 2005 12:01 AM
Christmas is about family, the joy of giving and good will toward all. It's also about spreading the gospel -- the gospel according to Langston Hughes, that is.
The writer presented his version of the Christmas story in "The Black Nativity." Featuring the Oakland-based Allen Temple Cantateers, the work will be staged Saturday at Atherton Auditorium.
It's a return engagement for the show, which was produced here last year. Then as now, the production serves as a fund-raiser for the San Joaquin AIDS Foundation, but does something more.
"Most importantly, it allows us to have entrée into new communities where we're trying to do outreach," foundation president Robert Lampkins said.
Co-sponsored by the Tracy African-American Association and the Stockton African-American Chamber of Commerce, the work finds Hughes telling the story of Jesus' birth from a Black perspective. The production uses traditional religious rituals, poetry and interpretive dance.
The Allen Temple Cantateers have performed the piece around the country. Their production features 35 singers and 25 dancers.
"We're using some of the traditional Christmas songs done in gospel style," director and music arranger Betty Gadling said.
Gadling sticks to Hughes' setting in the first act, but places Act II in a church in the late 1940s. That enables "The Black Nativity" to include such gospel gems as "Glory Be to the New Born King," "Wonderful Counselor" and "Old Landmark."
Born in Missouri and raised mainly in Kansas, Hughes made his mark on the literary world as the unofficial poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance. His deep love of gospel music inspired him to write "The Black Nativity."
Originally titled "Wasn't That a Mighty Day," the work had a short Broadway run in 1961. Hughes died in 1967.
Churches across the country began reviving "The Black Nativity" in the 1970s. In 1981, Gadling secured the rights to produce the show.
Hughes' affection for Black oral and religious rituals enabled him to create a play that merged traditional Christmas music with gospel stylings.
"He used all of that to make a Christmas story that was immediate, alive, vital," National Center for Afro-American Artists director Edmund Barry Gaither said. "He took a story that belongs to Christian tradition in general, and he reframed it in Black music and speech."
"It being so universal in theme, last year we had people of all colors come," Lampkins said. "Anyone can identify with it."