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My Boston History

We loved ‘The Nutcracker.’ We rejoiced at ‘Black Nativity’

While I understood all spaces should be open to all, this specific space was created to expand a sense of belonging to more, writes playwright Kirsten Greenidge.

NATIONAL CENTER OF AFRO-AMERICAN ARTISTS production of "BLACK NATIVITY."

Pictured:  Drumming to African beats, an array of talented artists, beautiful costumes, songs and dance illuminate the stage for Boston audiences at this years Black Nativity.
Boston’s Black Nativity celebrated its 50th year in 2020.Jeff Mayes
Kirsten Greenidge.
Kirsten Greenidge.Katia Nigro

Of particular excitement to me and my sisters at holiday time when we were growing up was the ritual of dressing to leave our house in Arlington: the snow white tights, still cool from their cellophane and cardboard trappings, and our matching patent leather Mary Janes; slips and freshly braided hair, or, if there hadn’t been enough time for our mother to braid three heads, one of us was perhaps expertly adjusted with some Posner’s and “the brush,” which was nobody’s friend. Our dresses matched, as well: swaths of wine colored velvet; crisp white collars; a wide, dark green sash of satin tied with a bow Empire-style across our chests.

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For several years in the ’70s and ’80s, our mother took us to The Nutcracker at what was then called The Wang Center, or to the Boston Pops, a favorite of my grandmother’s. We were never taught that these were not our spaces, instead, they were hallowed spaces for our family, destinations deserving of a polish and, depending how far back into the ’70s one goes to retrieve such memories, the little white gloves tucked away in our top drawers. My mother and my grandmother in particular worked hard to ensure that these places were considered municipal spaces when discussed by our family. Open to all. Belonging to none.

Ever the theater kid, both the ballet and the concert hall felt as though they should be beacons to me. I didn’t long to be Clara so much as I yearned to be whisked away by tulle and bright light. And yet. There was a certain remove regarding these shows. I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around it. One year, though, my grandparents, father, and mother grew excited: The little boy playing Fritz was Black. And I realized I did understand, after all.

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So I can say that it was a new feeling I felt in 1983 when my mother and grandmother nestled our lot — cousins and aunts and uncles — side by side into Northeastern’s Blackman Auditorium to attend Boston’s Black Nativity. Perhaps it was glee, its orange-red fringe warming the frost off our cheeks and noses: none of the other holiday outings besides church were a call for almost the entire family to show up in public somewhere in the middle of winter. This was new. And thrilling. Maybe it was spiky titillation. Nothing had even happened yet, but the crush of so many people, so many people who seemed to all know each other in some way, seemed to be making my legs bounce up off the seat of my chair. Everyone looked happy to be out, to be here. I knew better than to ask “Do we know that lady?” Barely 8, by now I knew if you were out and you saw another Black person, you were to say hello. It was what was done. “But do we know him?” Say hello. “Her?” Hello. “Them?” Hello, hello, hello. Tonight it was an entire room of hellos. And some seemed familiar (followed by handshakes, kisses on cheeks, mentions of how big you’ve all gotten and are you still at and so good to see you).

Hello. Hello. Hello.

And whether or not teeth showed or eyes crinkled, a sea of smiles back.

Perhaps that new feeling was pride, which has the dexterity to both anchor oneself firmly to the ground and permit one to feel as though flight is absolutely and unequivocally attainable. For while I understood all spaces should indeed be open to all, this specific space was created to expand a sense of belonging to more.

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As the show began, I settled into stillness. Row upon row of choir members — little kids like us! But grown-ups, too — streamed down the aisles, their lit candles lighting their way through the dark auditorium, their steps as careful as my sister and I were told to make ours last summer, when our Uncle David married our Aunt Pat. I’d heard “Go Tell It on The Mountain” before, but not like this. Not like my heart wanted to leap out from under my skin. I think around this time someone, probably my father, told me to sit back down in my seat. I was not in the show.

But for years after that, I longed to be. I imagined I could maybe be one of the small angels, singing the story of Jesus’ birth. I carried a tune well enough, I reasoned, even if I was terrified of burning myself up with a candle. Later I envisioned myself as Mary, who, during this rendition of the Nativity, does a West African dance as her son is about to be born, ivory-hued costume swirling about her, that made both me and my patrician grandmother swoon, albeit for different reasons. When I learned that community members participated as wise men (and later wise people) in the show, I wanted in on that, too. And if I remember correctly, there was yearly talk in our house about whether it was “all right” to want to be the live infant baby Jesus that got to be on stage the entire show. The verdict was split but I can say a laundry basket can serve as a manger, a smooshed bed pillow as “hay.”

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Hello, hello, hello.

For in each figure I saw on stage in Boston’s Black Nativity, I definitively saw myself. I saw my mother, my grandmother. My aunts, my uncles. Originally written by Langston Hughes and first performed off-Broadway in 1961, Black Nativity had been produced for decades in Boston by art educator Elma Lewis, and for 50 years has served as a means of celebration for Black Bostonians when wider, whiter Boston has not always seen fit to greet us with open arms and welcoming voice.

Boston undoubtedly struggles with its racist past and its insistence that what lies ahead is the promise of an antiracist future. What I think of first, when I think of being Black, and being of Boston, is neither. It is that glee, that pride, that shout into the light: We are here. Hello.

Explore this package: Haitian community | Summer of ’75 | New Edition | Searching for home | 1981 or 2021? | Invisible illness

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Kirsten Greenidge is Mellon/HowlRound artist-in-residence at Company One Theatre and an associate professor of playwrighting and theatre arts at Boston University. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.