African-American Theater Company to Stage Popular Show, "The Nativity", On the South Side of Chicago

A noted African-American theater company is moving its popular show about the discovery of Jesus in a manger, staging it in the poor, violence-stricken Englewood neighborhood to illustrate how hope can be found in unexpected places.

The South Side debut of "The Nativity" highlights the Christian symbolism and purpose behind the story of Christ's birth: to remind audiences that Jesus understood the plight of the poor from birth and that God can appear in the unlikeliest of spots.

"It's about celebrating in the midst of struggle, in the midst of hopelessness," said TaRon Patton, business manager of the Congo Square Theatre Company. "That's exactly what the Nativity is about. It's something the Englewood area needs to be reminded of."

Congo Square will join with Chicago's predominantly African-American churches to make the production possible, with the inaugural year spearheaded by Trinity United Church of Christ. But other church leaders say they are eager to pass the torch, saying collaboration in the community is long overdue.

"The whole story is really about Jesus coming to the ghetto," said the Rev. Corey Brooks, pastor of New Beginnings Church, which sits on the border between the Woodlawn and Englewood neighborhoods. "He comes to a stable. People don't think anything can come out of that place. ... There's a lot of similarities."

Congo Square Theatre first staged an adaptation of "Black Nativity," written by noted black poet Langston Hughes, in 2004. Four years later, the company commissioned a different version of the biblical narrative by playwright McKinley Johnson. The musical tells the traditional story of angel Gabriel's appearance before the Virgin Mary, Mary's journey with Joseph and the subsequent drama surrounding the birth of Jesus.

Like Hughes' play, first performed off Broadway in 1961, Congo Square Theatre's version includes an African-American cast, gospel music and dance.

Staged at the Goodman Theatre and a number of smaller venues, the play became a holiday destination for African-American families across the Midwest. But in 2009, a lack of funds caused the curtain to close. Calls and letters poured into Congo Square, Patton said. Donations did, too, and the production was reborn at the Goodman in 2010 and 2011.

Patton said it was reborn again when The Chicago Community Trust stepped in with funds to produce and promote the play on the South Side. The play will premiere at Kennedy King College on Thursday and run through Dec. 23. It will not run Dec. 18, and Friday is sold out.

Suddenly, the musical has a new purpose, Patton said.

"There's nothing out there right now that says Englewood is a place you want to be," Patton said. "Congo Square taking 'The Nativity' to the South Side and to Englewood is a way to say there are some beautiful things in Englewood. The people are beautiful in Englewood. We are going to Englewood to tell a good story."

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SOURCE: Chicago Tribune
Manya A. Brachear
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