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Economy Downsizes A Boston Holiday Tradition03:57
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A rehearsal of 'Black Nativity' (Delores Handy/WBUR)
A rehearsal of 'Black Nativity' (Delores Handy/WBUR)

A Christmas Tradition

BOSTON — Since the bottom fell out of the economy in late 2008, it's been an extremely difficult climate for nonprofit cultural organizations. And on Thursday night, amid economic struggles, a longtime fixture of Boston’s holiday tradition opens for a limited run.

Boston has the longest-running production of "The Black Nativity," the classic gospel song play by Langston Hughes. The play has been staged in Boston by the National Center of Afro-American Artists since 1969.

In the past, the Tremont Temple Baptist Church in downtown Boston staged at least a dozen performances over several weekends. This year there is only one weekend of performances, a significant scaling back from the years when the show's run rivaled other large holiday productions.

"We fall short to the economical times. We had to downsize because of financial reasons, but we had to go up. We didn't want to stop it," said Voncille Ross, executive producer and director of this year's "Black Nativity" production.

Ross said the reason the show is struggling is simple.

"Money. We don't have the money (for) renting space, to pay for the production companies, to help us produce this. There's just not enough funds coming in."

That's the story for many arts organizations in recent years.

"It's been an extremely difficult climate for nonprofit cultural organizations," said Greg Liakos, of the Massachusetts Cultural Council. "For especially the mid-sized and smaller nonprofit arts organizations, pretty much every source of revenue dropped significantly: individual support, corporate support, government and foundation support."

The climate has begun to improve. ArtsBoston reports sales of the half-price tickets for this year's Mayor's Holiday Special are up 41 percent over last year.

Not Giving Up

For "Black Nativity" there's been no talk of giving up. Generations of families are in it.

Vivian Cooley Collier has been in every production over the last 41 years, even during the 10 years she lived in California. Collier's son was once baby Jesus; her grandchildren are in the production now.

Collier said "Black Nativity" has a unique take on the familiar story. The story of Mary and Joseph being turned away from the inn addresses economic and class issues in play then, as well as now.

"No rooms," Collier said, "it reminds me of the homeless, it started way back before our time that there was no room."

Next year, organizers say they hope to return to a full production schedule. To do that they'll need more financial support. The Massachusetts Cultural Council said the good news for nonprofits is that things are beginning to improve now that some businesses are starting to hire, corporations are starting to look again at their philanthropic efforts, and foundations' bottom lines are starting to rebound.

This year, Roxbury Community College came to the rescue of "Black Nativity." Productions are being staged at RCC's Media Arts Center Auditorium.

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This program aired on December 9, 2011.

Delores Handy Twitter Reporter
Delores Handy was formerly a host and reporter at WBUR.

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