Boston's celebrated annual holiday production of "Black Nativity" opens Friday night in its new home — right in the heart of Boston's theater district.
'Coming Full Circle'
Langston Hughes' gospel play tells the Nativity story -- the journey of Mary and Joseph and the birth of the Christ child. Boston's 44th annual performance is the longest-running production in the nation.
It started under the direction of the late Elma Lewis, a nationally recognized arts educator who founded the National Center of Afro-American Artists.
"I believe 'Black Nativity' is coming full circle," said Voncille Ross, the show's executive producer. She says it has been quite a journey over the last 44 years. "It started here at the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts. Then we went to the Boston Conservatory. Then we went to the Opera House, then to Northeastern. Then to Tremont Temple, then back to Northeastern. Then to Roxbury Community College, back to Northeastern. Now we're here at the Paramount."
The Paramount Theatre is run by Emerson College, Lewis' alma mater — she graduated in 1943. In September, the school established the Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement. Emerson College President Lee Pelton says the school hopes to have a sustainable, ongoing relationship with "Black Nativity."
"This is a natural fit for us," Pelton said, "because it brings together the transformative power of arts and the power of knitting communities together as one Boston in a single place."
Ross says she's ecstatic about having a home for the show.
"I was walking down the street the other day and I looked up and to see our name, 'Black Nativity,' in lights, it was like wow, we've finally come," she said. "And [Lewis] would be so happy."
A Family Affair
"I think Elma Lewis is turning over in her -- no, no, she's not turning over in her grave. She's sitting up saying, 'Yes!'" said Betty Hillmon, who has worked on the production since 1975. "She always said to us, 'We have to go downtown.' We were at the Opera House years ago and then we had to go back to different places, but she always wanted to have 'Black Nativity' in downtown Boston."
Buddy Hughes, a soloist, has been in every production.
"Forty-four years this year," Hughes said. "I had just turned 17. I was a teenager, just graduated high school."
Vivian Cooley-Collier has also sung in every production, even when she lived in California.
"My son was the first baby Jesus in 'Black Nativity,'" Cooley-Collier said. "Now my grandkids are in it. I made it a family affair."
The "Black Nativity" family affair extends beyond the performers. Soloist Mildred Walker started out on the sidelines.
"I started out as a parent," Walker said. "My kids were in the show and I ushered for about five or six years. My son, when he got old enough to be in the show, wanted me to be in the show with him, so that's when I started singing."
Milton Wright, a retired Roxbury District Court judge, is a narrator and soloist and has been in "Black Nativity" for 28 years.
"This is is like our Christmas gift to Boston," Wright said. "It's also a present I think to ourselves. It is so important to start out the season with the message that really exemplifies the season, because it's been lost. It's been lost in the commercialism of things."
"Black Nativity" features a cast ranging in age from 5 to 80. Scores of singers, dancers, musicians — all telling what's often described as "the greatest story ever told."
Correction: An earlier version of this report misspelled Betty Hillmon's last name. We regret the error.