Among his many talents, Langston Hughes — poet, playwright, novelist — authored several stage musicals.
Best known is Black Nativity, which premiered in 1961 (as Wasn’t it a Mighty Day?) and has been running virtually every Christmas ever since (in Boston, for example, it’s played at the same theater annually since 1969).
Formed last summer, the Performing Arts Collective of Savannah — a multi–tasking group of dancers, singers, actors, musicians and spoken–word artists – is putting on Black Nativity Dec. 10–12 at New Covenant Church.
Based on St. Luke’s story of the nativity, the show utilizes music, dance, poetry and narrative.
“It’s basically a soulful celebration of the birth of Christ, a re–telling,” says director Gary Swindell, the Savannah musician and composer whose faction in the collective is called the Eastside Players.
“It’s kind of a cultural connection, personalizing the birth of Jesus, with the African American community.”
The choreography is by Muriel Miller, who runs the Abeni Cultural Arts dance troupe (with Stephanie Sykes–Davis). Clinton D. Powell, of Spitfire Poetry Group, was instrumental is adapting Hughes’ script (in truth, there’s not a lot of dialogue between the singing and dance numbers) and in formalizing a staging plan for Black Nativity.
Powell, however, has been ill, and so Swindell — the musical director — was forced to take over full directing duties.
There are more than 30 people in the cast, some of them Eastside Players, some regular Abeni dancers, and some recruited from a recent open casting call.
At the heart of it all is the music, which Swindell, as he often does, has dramatically re–arranged.
“I’m a strange person,” he laughs. “I never just re–do music as it’s written; I kind of put our spin on it. I’ve written new songs for it, and done lots of arrangements for the existing tunes. I’ve toured the show twice before, with another director, so I’m familiar with how it’s normally done.
“I’ve got little rock feel on ‘Go Tell it on the Mountain,’ and on ‘Sweet Little Jesus Boy,’ I do as a reggae song. We’ve got such a gamut, from straight spirituals to gospel to jazz to calypso. It’s just a little something for everybody. We’ve even got some rap in there. So it’s a blast.”
Shows are at 7 p.m. Dec. 10, 11 and 12, and at 3 p.m. Dec. 11 and 12, at 2201 Bull St. Tickets are $10.
John Houchin is a new arrival in Savannah. An associate Professor of Theatre at Boston College, he has an extensive background in both the dramatic arts and education.
For his first local show, he chose a play that touches on both subjects.
Houchin is directing a staged reading of Kim Euell’s The Diva Daughters Dupree at the City’s S.P.A.C.E. black box, Wednesday and Thursday, Dec. 8 and 9.
Euell’s comedy — which she says was inspired by Chekhov’s Three Sisters — is about Billie, Sarah and Abbey, siblings with very different ideas about what it means to be black (and female, and American) in today’s world.
“I’m very interested in the discourse about race,” Houchin explains, “and I thought this was a unique play in having this discourse take place through three black women. And I liked the idea of the sibling rivalry interlacing with the discourse on race.”
Billie (Vicki Blackshear) is a successful financial analyst; she and her (white) husband live amongst the upwardly mobile.
Enter sister Sarah (Cynthia Chambliss). “Sarah is the African American intellectual of the group,” says Houchin. “She’s the college professor and she’s trying to live her life ideologically, and she feels it’s important to maintain sort of the racial purity of the family, since African Americans had gone through so much to obtain their freedom. She doesn’t want it watered down. So she’s a purist.
“But she’s also a sort of Marxist, too, so she resents Billie’s consumerism, which is rather symbolic of the way that Billie doesn’t really regard her race as a driving feature of her life. Sarah does.”
Abbey, the youngest sister (played by Jasmine Richardson), is something of a free spirit; race doesn’t cross her mind much, one way or the other.
In the play, she’s married an Israeli man, which neither of her siblings can understand at all. “What’s the big deal?” is Abbey’s honest reaction to their chagrin.
Houchin chose to direct a staged reading of The Diva Daughters Dupree, rather than a full production, because he’s still finding his way around Savannah’s community theater world.
A reading, he says, requires less of a time commitment on the part of the actors, none of whom know him all that well yet.
Anyway, he admits, his forte is working with actors and character development.
“I do that well. And I don’t build sets well. So I decided to lead with my strengths.”
Shows are at 7 p.m. at 9 W. Henry St. Admission is $5.
I’ll be homeless for Christmas
The recent news about the discovery of 271 previously–unknown works by Pablo Picasso caught the attention of Savannah playwright Jim Holt, who last month staged the debut of his show Three Picassos — a comic drama about previously–unknown works by Pablo Picasso.
Once again, life had imitated art. “It ruined my whole show!” Holt says, only half kidding.
Art, of course, can’t be stopped, and Holt and his City Lights Theatre Company are back this week with another original work, Sleeping Indoors. It’s at S.P.A.C.E. for five performances, Dec. 10–19.
In Sleeping Indoors, Paul and Nora “adopt” a homeless man named Dwain, who harbors a dark and tragic secret. The plot thickens with the arrival of Nichole, Nora’s libidinous sister.
And gee, it all takes place at Christmastime. “It’s very much a Christmas play – of a different sort,” Holt explains. “It’s an adult Christmas play.”
The story’s theme is based somewhat on real events.
“I have a friend who I’ve known for 25 years, who used to hang out at the theater and help us with stuff,” says Holt.
“He’s been homeless for most of his life. And he’s been living with us for the last year and a half or so. He’s been a really nice, quiet tenant of our sunroom.
“I thought, well, I’ve got to find some way to take advantage of this situation! So I wrote a play about it.”
Holt himself plays Paul in Sleeping Indoors, with Jody Chapin as Nora. Kyle Price has the role of Dwain, and Grace Diaz Tootle is Nichole.
Shows are at 8 p.m. Dec. 10, 11, 17 and 18, and at 3 p.m. Dec. 19, at 9 W. Henry St. Admission is $10.