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Multiracial Cast of Black Nativity Performance Delights Audiences


Building on its vision to spread the gospel as a diverse body of believers, members of Madison Square Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., performed a multicultural adaptation of the musical Black Nativity on December 3 and 4.

Black Nativity was written by Langston Hughes in 1961. It is a retelling of Christ’s birth, traditionally performed by an all-black cast with carols and other songs sung in gospel style. “Black Nativity is known for being a presentation of the gospel from the black gospel tradition,” said Audrey Laninga, the drama’s co-director. “You have to be aware of the culture you’re trying to honor.” The decision Madison Square Church made to cast performers of diverse racial and cultural backgrounds was a conscious one.

“Any time a multiracial church chooses to do an event like the Black Nativity, there has to be a level of accountability,” said Laura Pritchard, director of multicultural living. “The voices of African-Americans are necessary to give direction and help maintain authenticity. That’s what we had to work through as a church.”

Despite some initial uncertainties, Laninga and co-director James Abney agreed that presenting it as a “multicultural adaptation” was the right decision for the church and that there was great harmony in the planning.

“The Lord brought it together really smoothly,” noted Abney, Madison Gospel Choir director. “God was in the details.” Overall, 80 people volunteered behind the scenes and as performers and musicians to put on a successful production.

Act 1 told the story of the birth of Jesus Christ through song, dance, and drama. The cast and choir wore traditional African attire, in part to pay homage to Providence Baptist Church, Madison’s partner church in Liberia. Act 2 was a story of a modern church spreading the gospel. “Now that we know the story of who Jesus is, what do we do?” Laninga summarized.

“We kept the main thing the main thing,” said Abney. “We kept Jesus the center of it all from the beginning to the end.”

With two performances, around 1,000 people attended and heard the message. “The excitement was exuberant,” Abney said. “People were in the house rejoicing.”

Lynn Setsma, a member of LaGrave Avenue CRC in Grand Rapids who attended, said, “The energy and the sincerity of the story that they told through music, dance, and word brought the Christmas message in a fresh way. To see the diversity in the group that was presenting it was very moving.”

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