A universal story with particular appeal
Dunbar Reparatory
staging production

By gloria stravelli
Staff Writer

A universal story with particular appeal
Dunbar Reparatory
staging production
of ‘Black Nativity’
By gloria stravelli
Staff Writer

The story is more than 2,000 years old: A child is born in humble circumstances and angels celebrate His birth. But while the details are universal, the Nativity story has been retold countless times in music and song that speak to the traditions of the audience.

"Langston Hughes wrote Black Nativity because there needed to be a holiday piece that spoke to black people," explained Darryl Willis Sr., founder of Dunbar Repertory Company, which presents works by African-American playwrights.

Willis, who founded Dunbar Repertory 16 years ago, is the director of Black Nativity, Hughes’ gospel song-play, which will be performed Dec. 27-29 at the Algonquin Arts Theater in Manasquan.

"Although The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol can be appreciated on many different levels, Black Nativity is a piece that, especially in the second act, really, really speaks to black folks," Willis explained. "It has a gospel flavor to it."

Darryl Willis Sr. has kept the Dunbar Repertory Company focused on choosing good stories and telling them well.Darryl Willis Sr. has kept the Dunbar Repertory Company focused on choosing good stories and telling them well.

While the first act of Black Nativity revolves around the birth of Christ in Bethlehem and features 10 songs that are a combination of spirituals and traditional carols, the second act "is like a church revival meeting," Willis said. "It’s joyful, very spiritual. The entire show is just two hours long. It’s a short, powerful, hand-clapping, rejoicing holiday piece."

The adaptation written by Hughes, a Harlem resident, poet and playwright, premiered in New York in 1961. The successful production gave rise to national and international tours, and the play has been adapted in African, Caribbean and calypso versions.

According to Willis, Hughes’ play underscores the real message of the holiday.

"A lot of people, black and white, say this is the show that helps them start their new year," said Willis. "This piece really causes you to reflect on the true meaning of Christmas.

"It’s a very simple production, not a spectacle," he continued. "We have some really fine singers and musicians, and their telling of the story is so heartfelt, it just makes people reflect on the past year and think about what they want to accomplish in the coming year."

A Long Branch native, Willis is assistant director of the Center for Urban Services, a community outreach of Brookdale Community College in Long Branch, and an adjunct instructor of theater and acting at Brookdale’s main Lincroft campus.

Dunbar Repertory Company grew out of his role as adviser to Brookdale’s Black Student Union.

"I was working in the admissions office and serving as the BSU adviser," Willis explained. "They needed a fund-raiser and knew that I had a background in theater, so they approached me about directing a production of Home by Samm-Art Williams.

The comic-drama about a young black man’s coming-of-age journey was a success. The following year, he produced Medal of Honor Rag by Tom Cole, and he followed that the next year with For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf by Ntozake Shange.

"We had pretty much run our course," said the Howell resident. Then he and childhood friend Ramon James Morris decided to stage An Evening with Dunbar and Hughes, a homage to Hughes and African-American poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, but the production didn’t exactly go according to plan.

"We put together a night of poetry, but it was one of those nights when everything that can go wrong, does," Willis recalled. "Only 12 people showed up, and when we got up on stage, I was supposed to turn to Ramon and say, ‘Good evening, Mr. Hughes,’ and he was supposed to turn to me and say, ‘Good evening, Mr. Dunbar,’ but we both said ‘Good evening, Mr. Dunbar’ and blew it, and the audience started laughing," he recounted. "Then 10 people left."

The incident actually gave the repertory company its name.

"We said, ‘We’ll never do this again,’ Willis recounted, "and I said, ‘If we ever do this again, let’s name it Dunbar Repertory.’ "

During a year’s hiatus, people on and off campus asked Willis to resume the productions.

"People were calling me and saying, ‘You’re on to something good,’ he recounted. "There was a lack of theater that presented African-American writers and that spoke to that community."

Willis and Morris responded by making good on their promise and founded Dunbar Repertory Company in 1987 with a simple mission: "to mount plays by significant African-American playwrights like Hughes, Dunbar and Lorraine Hansberry," Willis said.

The theater company began its run in the small theater at the Brookdale Performing Arts complex with a production of God’s Trombone by James Weldon Johnson and played for 15 sold-out performances. That was followed in 1990 by Amen Corner by James Baldwin and Master Harold and the Boys by Athol Fugard the following year.

While it focuses on black playwrights, the works the company presents speak to a broad audience, Willis said.

"From the beginning, we’ve had a mixed audience and a mixed company," he said. "I think that’s because we always choose plays and pieces with good stories and we tell them well. If it’s a good story, it will always work, no matter what."

After changing venues for years, the company moved to the Algonquin Arts Theatre in Manasquan in 1999, where it presents four main stage productions per year. Plays have included Seven Guitars by August Wilson, For Colored Girls…, Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery by Shay Youngblood and Hambone by Javon Johnson. The remainder of the 2002-2003 season will feature The People Could Fly, by Virginia Hamilton, Feb. 15-23, a play about the irrepressible creativity and imagination of black slaves; A Soldier’s Play, by Charles Fuller, April 3-13, a play set in an army camp in the South in 1944; and Jitney by August Wilson, July 10-20, a play set in the 1970s about gypsy cab drivers who serve black neighborhoods in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Tickets are available through the Algonquin box office at (732) 528-9211.

According to Willis, Dunbar Repertory Company has succeeded in fulfilling its mission of presenting theater that speaks not only to the African-American community, but to the community at large.

"I feel that overall we’ve improved the quality of life for everyone in Monmouth County in the 16 years we’ve been doing shows," Willis commented. "We’ve brought plays to the county that would not have been presented had we not done them. People would not have had the opportunity to see them.

"In 16 years, we’ve played to at least 20,000 people. I would say we’ve made a dent," Willis observed. "We’ve gotten some great stories out there that needed to be told and needed to be heard.

"We did Master Harold and the Boys, and even though it takes place in South Africa, you have to deal with what it’s like to live in South Africa and how devastating apartheid was," he said."

Another work staged by Dunbar Repertory, The Meeting, is a dramatization of the fictional first-time meeting of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

For the past eight summers, Dunbar has performed the piece for high school students attending a summer enrichment program at Monmouth University, and the play has been a vehicle for building understanding and fostering a change, Willis said.

"We do a question-and-answer session with the young people afterwards when I can tell them their stories. They get a different outlook not only on Dr. King and Malcolm X, but on what it was like to grow up in the 1960s," he explained.

"We’ve been able to perform The Meeting in front of more than 100 students. The issues that come up in the question-and-answer session and in conversations — you can’t put a price on that kind of thing. You know they’ll never be the same."