Singers, Robinson mount ‘Black Nativity’

Dec 03, 2013
Annie and Debbie Brady are soloists in Down East Singers’ “Black Nativity” concert.

Camden — Down East Singers has never been designated a gospel group, but has something different planned as its holiday offering. “Black Nativity — In Concert: A Gospel Celebration” will be presented Thursday, Dec. 12, at 7:30 p.m. at Newcastle’s St. Patrick's Church; and Sunday, Dec. 15, at 2 p.m. at the downtown Camden Opera House.

“Black Nativity” was born in December 1961 at the 41st Street Theater in New York City, where six gospel singers, with accompaniment from a piano and a B-3 Hammond organ, performed the work by poet and playwright Langston Hughes. The show closed after 50 performances. Anthony Antolini of Cushing —then a student, now artistic director of Down East Singers — attended one of them.

Years later, Antolini discovered that fellow Midcoast musician Aaron Robinson shared his interest in gospel music and retrieved from his collection a treasured and rare LP recording of that early show and gave it to him. Robinson fell in love with the music, started doing research, wrote down the arrangements (which had never been published) and then presented “Black Nativity” in concert several times beginning in 2001 at Immanuel Baptist Church in Portland. Robinson has passed his arrangements, with additional spirituals, to Antolini, who has been rehearsing the 60-member chorus since September.

Six soloists from the chorus will be featured: mother and daughter Debbie Brady and Annie Brady; Kristen Burkholder; Richard Fiske, David Myers Jr.; and Valerie Wells. The Camden Opera House's newly restored 1927 Steinway grand piano will be unveiled and accompanist Jennifer McIvor will christen the instrument in lively style. Meanwhile, Midcoast keyboard wizard Sean Fleming will improvise on a vintage A-10 Hammond organ — an earlier version of the B-3 — specially purchased for these performances.

The chorus will be singing “off book,” with lots of clapping, snapping and stomping. Audience participation is invited, especially during the concluding “Go, Tell it on the Mountain.” Other familiar songs include “Joy to the World,” though decidedly not the hymnbook version, and “Oh Happy Day.” Narrator Dean Jorgenson will tie the musical numbers together with recitation of scripture and Hughes' poetry.

“Black Nativity” has had other iterations through the years, notably in Boston and Seattle; and there is a just-released “Black Nativity” movie starring Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett, with a loose plot connection. Robinson stressed that his arrangement focuses on the song element of the play, presenting the story of the birth of Jesus through the music.

"It's a joy to collaborate with Aaron Robinson in this production," said Antolini. "He has created a true gospel masterpiece with his arrangements and we are grateful to him for sharing them with us prior to publication."

Admission to the St. Patrick's Church performance is by suggested donation of $20; no tickets are necessary. Tickets for the Camden Opera House performance are $20, free to students younger than 19, and are available from chorus members, online at downeastsingers.org and at Thomaston Cafe; Grasshopper Shop, Rockland; Owl and Turtle Bookshop, Camden; and Left Bank Books, Belfast. Any remaining tickets will be available at the box office beginning at 1 p.m. the day of the performance. For more information, call 619-0413.

Courier Publications’ A&E Editor Dagney C. Ernest can be reached at (207) 594-4401, ext. 115; or dernest@courierpublicationsllc.com.

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