'Black Nativity: A Gospel Music Experience' continues tradition at Ferst Center for the Arts

"Black Nativity: A Gospel Christmas Musical Experience" presents the nativity story through song, dance, poetry and scripture with a cast of nationally renowned performers. (Courtesy of Black Nativity)

One of Atlanta’s most spectacular holiday traditions returns this year with “Black Nativity: A Gospel Christmas Musical Experience,” on stage at the Ferst Center for the Arts through Dec. 18. The production presents the Christian Bible’s nativity story through song, dance, poetry, and scripture with a cast of nationally renowned performers.

 One of them, gospel singer Latrice Pace joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom along with the director of “Black Nativity,” Robert John Connor, to talk more about the returning annual show.

Interview highlights:

A celebration of Black Christian faith embraced since the 1960s:

“‘Black Nativity,’ of course, originated under the pen of Langston Hughes, who in the early sixties created this, what he coined a ‘song play.’ That was, I guess, his response artistically to how things were changing in American society, how African-Americans began to see themselves in all things that they do, including how they worship God and through Christianity,” said Connor. 

He went on, “After it debuted on Broadway in 1961, it became a staple in a lot of the major cities in the African-American community, because oftentimes we were excluded from certain events and certain artistic things, and so it was a way of saying, ‘Hey, here we are. Here’s our representation, and here’s what we believe, and this is how we represent that.’ And so now fast forward 60 years later – we are still continuing the tradition of presenting ‘Black Nativity’ here in Atlanta, and it has become a holiday tradition for all walks of life, all cultures, because of the beautiful and glorious costumes and the magnificent music and dance.”

Latrice Pace on her character Sister Frankly:

“Sister Frankly is, simply, my mother through and through,” Pace said. “I grew up in a very strict Pentecostal home, and it was the type where you were going to church on Sunday morning, and you were going to go to Sunday school prior to Sunday morning service, and when you got to service, you’re not going to go to sleep, you’re going to pay attention. So Sister Frankly is my mother, and she’s that mother that kind of co-pastors, unofficially, without the pastor’s permission or knowing or knowledge. She just makes sure everybody stays in line. She makes sure everybody is dressing accordingly… She just makes sure the message of the gospel stays within the church.”

Connor added, “Sister Frankly represents church tradition. She’s the matriarch of the church. She is an elder of the church that the church has grown to love and respect, but she does not mince her words, and as she has gotten older, she cares a little less about what people think about what she has to say.”

A joyful display of talent by all-star singers, dancers and orators:

“I love the moment with the shepherds’ men. I love the moment with the kingsmen. I also love the moment once Christ is born, and we are all just gathered around and singing and worshiping him,” said Pace. “There are just so many pivotal moments in this show… You know how sometimes you can experience a show, and you have so many pivotal moments where the ride kind of exhausts you? You will not get exhausted, because each musical moment offers something different, and one moment gets better than the next.”

“It touches so many segments of musical taste, and let’s not forget the incredible dancing,” said Connor. “It is a potpourri; it is a jambalaya of African and African-American goodness that speaks universally. It’s not encompassing or so specific that if you come from a different walk of life or background, you can’t appreciate it. Our audience has grown to be so diverse because it, ultimately, is a celebration. We had a Muslim come last year who just came because his friend told him to come, and he spoke so profoundly about how impactful this performance by Christians was to him. The dancing is just breathtaking.”

“Black Nativity” is on stage at Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center for the Arts through Dec. 18. Tickets and more information are available here.