Black Nativity celebrates 10th anniversary in Seattle

I confess. I love "Black Nativity." I've seen it every year since moving to Seattle nine years ago. And I never tire of it.

So in honor of the show's 10th anniversary, I decided to drop in on a rehearsal and interview the performers who had been with the production since its Seattle debut.

As I entered the room, dancers were leaping through the air, whirling higher than most ballet pros, then doing tumbles, back-flips and one-armed cartwheels in dazzling progressions.

If you haven't seen "Black Nativity," you should know that Langston Hughes' gospel play unfolds in two parts: the birth of Jesus as seen through the improvisational music and dance traditions of African-American culture, followed by a rousing gospel songfest. Hughes retells the Nativity story as if he himself had followed that star to Bethlehem to find all races of people kneeling together in peace beside that tiny manger.

Intiman's beloved production debuted in 1998, with a powerhouse trio at the helm: Jackie Moscou (pronounced moss-coo) as director, Pastor Patrinell Wright as musical director and Rev. Dr. Samuel B. McKinney as narrator. In addition to these three, four singers are "Black Nativity" veterans: Gena Brooks, her sister Tanisha Brooks, Rev. Mr. Joseph E. Connor and Lulu Strange. All came to the production via Pastor Wright's Total Experience Gospel Choir.

This year, "Black Nativity" boasts 40-plus singers and dancers, ages 16 to 80, from churches all over Seattle, plus three narrators and a four-member band. But the very first production was a much smaller endeavor with only 14 people. No costumes; no sets. Basically it was just members of the Total Experience Choir. That grassroots effort played only 15 performances, but audiences loved it.

Gena, who works in childcare, started singing with Total Experience 29 years ago. Her family had moved from Urbanville, La., to Seattle. Then one day someone at their dad's job suggested he let his girls join the Total Experience Gospel Choir. "I didn't even know I could sing," Gena explained. "I was only 6."

Now, Gena's soprano solo "Don't Wait 'Til the Battle's Over" is a 10-year tradition of "Black Nativity." She leads a huge production number that features the entire choir doing the cha-cha, among other movements.

Her sister Tanisha, an instructional assistant for Seattle Public Schools, was only 4 when she started singing alto with Total Experience. But she has a very special connection to Pastor Wright. Tanisha is the mother of Wright's 16-year-old grandson, DeShé, and this year DeShé's making his "Black Nativity" bow.

Lulu moved from San Francisco to Seattle when she was 2. She joined Total Experience as a soprano when she was 7, then started singing with "Black Nativity" when she was 20. Now a student at Shoreline Community College, she plans to become a psychologist. "I've never had any musical training, except for Pat," Lulu admitted. "But my father was a balladeer, so maybe I got my talent from him."

Dubbed "Mr. Tenor Man" by Pastor Wright, Joseph is easily recognized. He's the only wise man wearing glasses. Not only is he an ordained minister, but he also works for the state of Washington in children's services.

Joseph grew up singing in the Catholic Church in New Orleans. A few years after moving to Seattle in 1978, he and his young son chanced to hear the Total Experience Choir. His son was ready to sign up then, and persisted until Joseph agreed. Then his second son joined. "Since I was constantly bringing them to choir rehearsal," Joseph remembered, "Pat said, 'You might as well sing.' That was 23 years ago."

Some people may never go to an African American church, so "Black Nativity" brings it to them. Seasoned audience members know they'll see people of all faiths, races, ages and walks of life doing something our world leaders cannot manage - rejoicing together in peace and harmony. Any given night, everyone from Baptists, Catholics and Unitarians to Presbyterians, Muslims and Jews come together in fellowship.

"Don't forget the atheists," added Lulu. "Music has the power to bring anybody together at any time. What else would bring atheists to this show? Curiosity, maybe. But every year, they come and sit through the whole performance. I think they even enjoy it."

"Sometimes I feel like a rock star," Gena enthused. "If we go into the lobby right after the performance, people you would never expect come up and say, 'You don't know how much you touched my heart today. I was feeling real down. My wife made me come; my mom made me come; my sister made me come.'"

One of the joys of "Black Nativity" is its spontaneity, as if you just dropped in on a big family celebration. So there are bound to be bloopers. And Joseph shared his favorites.

"One year, Rev. McKinney's pants fell down during his big solo, 'Said I Wasn't Gonna Tell Nobody.' But he just held them up while he finished the song.

"Another time all these schoolkids came to a matinee. At first they were very well-behaved. Then either Rev. McKinney or Pat told them to get up and shake the hand of three people they didn't know. Well, they ran all over the theater, and I don't think they ever returned to their own seats. It was really cute."

When I asked the singers about their "Black Nativity" heroes, all four expressed their deep affection and gratitude to Moscou, Pastor Wright and Rev. McKinney.

"When I first met Jackie," Gena said, "I was like 'Who's this?' Oh that's Pat's friend. 'Well, who is she?' Well, now I've gotten to know her. She's a great person who makes us all feel like actors - seriously. Pat taught us how to sing when we were younger, but Jackie brought out our acting skills."

"Pat is like a mother to me," Tanisha shared, speaking through her tears. "I don't know what our lives would be like if she wasn't in them. And also Rev. McKinney. We've known him as long as we've known Pat - they live next door to each other. To be the leader that he is, he is just so humble. I've never ever met anybody like him in this world. Never. They will both live in my heart - always."

Partly though Pastor Wright's mentoring, three American Idol finalists have emerged from the Total Experience Gospel Choir: Sanjaya Malakar, Karma Johnson and Leah LaBelle. The latter two are "Black Nativity" alumnae. And this past Sunday, all three singers joined the production for two performances.

But "Black Nativity" is not about celebrity. It's about the heart and soul of the "regular" folks who perform every year - and the faith that overflows onstage. So I couldn't resist asking these loyal songsters how long they will continue to do the show.

"You know, it's not even a performance anymore. I like to think we four pretty much own the stage when we're out there," Gena teased.

But ... will they all keep performing in "Black Nativity"?

"Yes," as her laughter spilled over to the other three, "until they kick us out."

'Black Nativity' at Intiman Theatre
Tuesday-Sunday through Dec. 28
Tickets: $10-$42, 269-1900 or

Contact Seattle arts writer Starla Smith via

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