'Black Nativity' Shepherds Sing Michael Jackson Songs

The holiday brings out performing arts staples: Handel's Messiah, The Nutcracker, and Langston Hughes' Black Nativity. For years, theaters have transformed Hughes' original script — adding songs and changing settings. San Francisco's Lorraine Hansberry Theatre features shepherds singing Michael Jackson tunes, and an act set in a contemporary urban African-American church.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is the season of gifts, lights and theatrical productions with Christmas themes. There's the Nutcracker�

(Soundbite of song, "Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy")

MONTAGNE: Also, Handel's "Messiah."

(Soundbite of song, "Hallelujah Chorus")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah.

MONTAGNE: And all across the country African-American theaters, churches and colleges groups are performing rollicking gospel versions of another traditional Christmas story: "Black Nativity," written by Langston Hughes. One of those productions is in its 11th season at a theater in San Francisco. Lisa Morehouse was there.

(Soundbite of stage play, "Black Nativity")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) It was a time for the savior to be born, but there was no room.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) No room.

LISA MOREHOUSE: It's pretty common and lucrative for performing arts groups to put on holiday shows. But Stanley Williams, the artistic director of the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, thinks many of those performances are missing something.

Mr. STANLEY WILLIAMS (Artistic director, Lorraine Hansberry Theatre): When I go see "Christmas Carol," you know, one would think that America consists of only white people, to be really quite frank with you. In "Black Nativity" you really get to see another perspective.

(Soundbite of stage play, "Black Nativity")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) No room.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) No room.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) It was a time for the savior to be born, but there was no room.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) No room.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) No room.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) No room.

MOREHOUSE: Langston Hughes' "Black Nativity" premiered on Broadway in 1961. Every year, it plays in cities across the country, from Seattle to Birmingham. Boston's production is 40 years old. Hughes' original script often gets adapted and modernized. The Lorraine Hansberry Theatre's version always includes wayward shepherds. They find their way to the baby Jesus by singing songs by musicians who've died in the past year.

(Soundbite of stage play, "Black Nativity")

(Soundbite of song, "Man in the Mirror")

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) 'Cause they got nowhere to go. That's why I want you to know, I'm starting with the man in the mirror.

MOREHOUSE: One of the shepherds is played by 16-year-old cast member Darius Johnson.

Mr. DARIUS JOHNSON (Actor): Don't get me wrong. Christmas motets and the Latin Mass and everything, that's great. It's beautiful. But when it comes down to the birth of the Savior, I want to hear it told to me, not just hear the "Ave Maria, Gratia Plena."

MOREHOUSE: The first act of the play is a contemporary take on the biblical story of Mary and Joseph's journey to the manger and the birth of Christ.

(Soundbite of stage play, "Black Nativity")

Unidentified Man #2: This gospel church, where his word is spread, is but an extension of his manger.

(Singing) Whoa.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Whoa, my God, God is good.

MOREHOUSE: The second act takes place in an urban black church with deacons and ushers and women in their best hats.

(Soundbite of stage play, "Black Nativity")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) God be with you till we meet again. We're so...

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Glad you came here tonight. Everything will be all right.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) Oh, God.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) God be with you till we meet again.

MOREHOUSE: Artistic director Stanley Williams hopes "Black Nativity" will draw African-American audiences that don't always go to the theater and keep them coming after the holiday season.

For NPR News, I'm Lisa Morehouse.

(Soundbite of stage play, "Black Nativity")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) May the Lord God bless you real good. Oh, real good. Real good. Real good. Real good. May the Lord God bless you real good. Real good. Real good. May the Lord God bless you real...

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) ...good.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) ...good.

(Soundbite of applause)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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