Langston Hughes’ classic Black Nativity has lived on in a number of formats since the legendary poet first put it on as an Off-Broadway performance in 1961. It's perhaps Hughes' most acclaimed and timeless work - the celebrated artist's own interpretation of the birth of Jesus Christ.
For nine years now, the Performing Arts Collective of Savannah has been doing the play and establishing it as a Christmas tradition.
Musical director Gary Swindell and his wife, Priscilla, are responsible for carrying on Hughes’ legacy through Black Nativity in Savannah, and this year’s production is no exception.
“I first did this show over 40 years ago,” Swindell says. “I toured the show - we went to San Antonio and a couple cities on the East Coast. And of course we did it here, and in Charleston. I fell in love with it at that time. I always thought, ‘When I get my own crew, I’m going to do it a little different.’”
Swindell’s version expands beyond just Gospel music, incorporating elements of reggae, African township music, and latin.
“What makes his thing special is that it’s him,” Swindell says of Hughes’ work. “He was always very conscious of his cadence being musical. As you go through the script, without any music at all, you feel a pulse. That made putting the music together very simple.”
This year’s show is set to feature some new performers and instrumentation, and it’s something of a family affair for Priscilla and Gary - the former is directing this year’s production, and their children are even involved. Not only is their son, Gary Swindell, Jr., in the cast - their daughter will be featured in the show as well.
“I’m directing this year, and it’s our daughter’s first time singing in the show,” Priscilla says.
“One of the reasons is to empower the family. This is an awesome show for the family, and [the hope is] to maybe instill in the younger generation something that they want to continue on. Something that they want to pick up and say, ‘Mommy, do you remember when I saw that show? I think I might want to do that!’ Gary and I have been doing theater for years, and one of the things we’ve tried to do is influence young people.”
Gary Swindell says that Black Nativity is just one example of Hughes’ lasting legacy.
As a pioneering figure in poetry and literary arts, Hughes was responsible for creating jazz poetry, a groundbreaking poetic art form that went on to become massively important to paving the way for things like hip hop music.
“Langston Hughes and those guys from the [Harlem] Renaissance, that’s the DNA of not just black theater but American theater,” he says. “Aspects of those things pop up - in everyone you see right now there’s DNA characteristics that were set years and years ago before they were born. To me, that’s Langston Hughes.”