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In 1961, Langston Hughes, one of the foremost poets of the Harlem Renaissance, had an audacious idea. Why not retell the classic Nativity of Jesus story with an entirely black cast? "Black Nativity" debuted off-Broadway on December 11, 1961. But it's Boston that's home to one of the longest annual performances of the musical, which has been on stage at since 1969.
This year, "Black Nativity" makes its big-screen debut in a new film adaptation starring an A-list of African American stars, including Forrest Whitaker, Angela Bassett and Jennifer Hudson.
But even in this Hollywood incarnation, "Black Nativity" has two strong Boston connections. First, Director Kasi Lemmons. She grew up in Boston, and loved the long-running local production. Second, break-out star Grace Gibson. She plays Maria, a sort of modern-day Mary.
"I really wanted to do right by this role," Gibson said. "And it's my fist film, so I'm like, 'What do I do? What do I do?' And they all said, 'The best thing for you to do is to take a risk.'"
Grace Gibson is a student at Berklee College of Music. She's 22-years old, and "Black Nativity" is her first ever feature film. A daunting prospect for any fledgling actress, let alone one who's been tasked with bringing to life the role of Mary and in the specific way Director Kasi Lemmons wanted.
"Really, she wanted my character to simply embody faith and embody hope in a hopeless situation so much so that it's a bit infectious," Gibson said. "But as an actor, I can't think, 'This is what I am embodying. I am faith. I am faith.' Rather, it was really getting in the body of that person. Being Maria, being Mary, every day, waking up and living in her circumstance."
So Grace Gibson embodied Mary as authentically as she could. For weeks before filming began, Gibson donned a prosthetic belly, and walked the streets of Harlem.
"And I would bump into mutual friends. I would bump into people that I knew and they'd be like, 'Grace, you're pregnant? And I'm like, 'No, no, no, no, no.'
"I put the prosthetic belly on, I took lamaze class. And that is what allowed me to be hopeful because walking through the streets of Harlem with my prosthetic belly on in the cold and seeing how people reacted to me, yet still having to hold my head high was something that really influenced me as the character, the person Maria."
This segment aired on December 6, 2013.
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