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."
The Rev. Otis Moss III, senior pastor of Trinity, said the play gives congregations an opportunity to support the arts in their community and amplify their sermons in a way that moves a specific audience. A stage filled with black characters dressed in costumes and singing and dancing to rhythms from the African and African-American traditions resonates, Moss said.
"It's very powerful, especially for a community that has not witnessed the biblical story from that vantage point," Moss said. "We witness the importance of a helpless and senseless child in the arms of a young girl. Holding that child in a manger is a father who at one point in the biblical story wasn't quite sure he was going to stay with Mary. That speaks to everything happening today in our community. Every time a child is born, God is saying 'I have not given up on humanity.'"
Suzanne Connor, senior program officer for arts and culture for The Chicago Community Trust, said emerging artists have 37 venues north of the Auditorium Theatre in downtown Chicago where they can perform. There are only a handful to the south, she said.
"We need pathways for emerging artists," Connor said. "We shouldn't just be branding that community with the highest dropout rate, the highest number of offenders, the highest crime rate. The long-term solution is making sure that the assets of the community are strengthened and that young artists don't go off and become successful and don't come back."
Patton, 46, grew up in the former Ida B. Wells Homes, a public housing development in the Bronzeville neighborhood. The turning point in her life came at age 8 when her grandmother took her to see "The Wiz," an African-American adaptation of "The Wizard of Oz." Reading, writing and arithmetic didn't particularly excite her until she witnessed how to apply them.
"It let me know, 'Wait a minute! Not every black person lives in the projects? Not every black person is poor? You use all of that reading and writing to produce that?' I was all in! I could see myself in that. Before that, I could've been one of these lost children," she said.
Patton said watching "The Nativity" come together every year conjures up the same optimism "The Wiz" stoked in her 38 years ago. When young people see this version of "The Nativity," "they can see themselves in this story and how it relates to them."
"You walk away and go, 'If they had told it that way in church I might've went,'" she said.
Alexis J. Rogers, 35, grew up in the Chatham neighborhood near 92nd Street and King Drive. She left Chicago as soon as she graduated from high school and earned a degree in musical theater from Howard University.