Langston Hughes' gospel play "Black Nativity" focuses on the hope-bringing power of the birth of Jesus, even to the poorest among us. But it also offers a director flexibility in connecting that miracle two millennia ago to life today.
"What that means to me is, you know, being unapologetically Black and celebrating Black life," Henning said.
Featuring an all-Black cast, the show runs Dec. 9-12 in the Marcus Center's Wilson Theater at Vogel Hall. The "Black Nativity" tradition began in 2015 at the Marcus, interrupted only by the COVID-19 shutdown last year.
Henning, who has acted for Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, First Stage and other groups, saw this musical for the first time in 2016 when Malkia Stampley directed it, and he "was blown away." In Stampley's 2018 version, he played the role of Joseph, Mary's husband, determined to illuminate Joseph's struggle, "as a Black man in the city," to be there for his wife and child. "HIs faith is what grounded him, his faith is what was able to keep him there with Mary," Henning said.
Preparing to direct this year's show, Henning immersed himself in a playlist of gospel music "just to get my mind right, and just to get that creativity flowing."
In drawing attention to the Sherman Park unrest and the #MeToo movement, past productions have shown church people and street activists in conflict in the second act. "I thought it would be time for something new" this year, Henning said. That includes new costumes, some new cast members and a new song composed by music director Antoine Reynolds Sr.
Of course, there will still be plenty of gospel and Christmas music. And Henning said the show's underlying message has not changed:
"We may have some tough days, but … Jesus is always there. And we can always find safety in each other and in our own community, if we're willing to make that reach."
If you go
Black Arts MKE performs "Black Nativity" Dec. 9-12 at the Marcus Performing Arts Center, 929 N. Water St. For tickets, visit marcuscenter.org or call (414) 273-7206. Proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test are required. Children under 12 are allowed into MPAC with an adult that meets vaccination or negative testing requirements. Masks required.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: 'Black Nativity' director connects Jesus' birth to Black life today