Local group produces the thought-provoking ‘Black Nativity: Liberation Holiday’

THE PEOPLE’S PLAY: Director Daniele Martin, second from left, decided that the contributions of community performers to ‘Black Nativity: Liberation Holiday’ should be organic rather than strictly adhering to Langston Hughes’ 1961 play, 'Black Nativity,' the original inspiration for the show. Also pictured, from left, are Daniel Suber, Sekou Coleman, Jenny Pickens, Alexandria Ravenel and Jonathan Santos. Photo by Elizabeth C. Garland

Black Nativity: Liberation Holiday is a dynamic new production that will spotlight artists and culture bearers in Asheville’s African-American community. Produced by Southside Rising and supported by partners such as Asheville Creative Arts, the show opens Saturday, Dec. 15, and will be staged throughout the city.

Divided into three parts, Black Nativity: Liberation Holiday looks at the trajectory of black lives. The first act is Roots/Birth. “That’s when we talk about the birth of Black Christ,” explains director Daniele Martin. “That’s when we talk about our roots as people, and there’s a birthing ritual. It’s about us coming into life.”

The second act is Liberation. “We may still be dealing with racism, but there is liberation in our lives all the time,” says Martin. And the third act, Celebration, she explains, is “celebration that we’re still here, that we’ve been able to endure.”

Martin continues, “I want to give a production that black people look forward to. I want to bring a joyful experience for black people around the holidays that’s not about Christmas.”

With its focus on black Asheville, four performances are being presented primarily for residents in historically black neighborhoods, with two for the greater community to be held at the Asheville Community Theatre and the YMI Cultural Center. Notably, the performance at the YMI will kick off that organization’s 125th-anniversary celebration. Proceeds from ticket sales will be used to support opportunities for black artists and performers.

While crafting a framework for Black Nativity: Liberation Holiday, Martin says, “I felt it was important to really talk about our culture, to show that despite a lot of things that I think Asheville has done dirty to black people, we are still here, we are still persevering, and there are still things in our lives to celebrate.”

“For us to use the arts as the anchor for us to come together with this particular play, this should be a catalyst for so much more to come,” says Michael Hayes, a member of the show’s creative team. “It should be a catalyst for us re-realizing. Not just our resilience — we know that part — but an opportunity to have our own spaces to showcase what we do and who we are.”

In addition to Hayes and Martin, who will both perform in the show, the creative team also includes Jonathan Santos, whose band Soulution is part of the production. Other performers are Olympia Garrett, Janeesha Renee, Kia Rice, Kasia Maatafale, DJ Twan and members of the Urban Arts Institute. Attendees can expect music, dance and poetry, as well as dramatic pieces.

Using community-based performers was an intentional decision for Martin, as was allowing their contributions to be organic rather than strictly adhering to Langston Hughes’ 1961 play, Black Nativity, the original inspiration for the show.

Southside Rising is a collaboration between organizations and people desiring to cultivate healing, restore and reclaim community culture, support emerging leaders, grow food and incubate economic development in the historically African-American Southside neighborhood. It is significant that rehearsals for Black Nativity: Liberation Holiday are being held in the heart of Southside at the Arthur R. Edington Education & Career Center — also the site of the first shows. The building has long been part of the legacy of black excellence in Asheville.

From 1942-70, the building was the Livingston Street School, offering black students education and enrichment. The city of Asheville took the property over in 1970, converting the school into the W.C. Reid Center for Cultural Arts. In 2012, it was purchased by the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville and, in 2014, was renamed the Arthur R. Edington Center after a former Livingston Street School principal. Today, the center holds numerous organizations, including Green Opportunities, My Community Matters and UpFront Sports Management.

Hayes, who is also a case manager for Green Opportunities, founder of the Urban Arts Institute dance troupe and a longtime resident of Asheville, remembers the days when the W.C. Reid Center was the space for countless cultural events for black residents, including talent shows he hosted in the ’80s for capacity crowds. He says this new production is reminiscent of those days because it’s taking “different parts of the black talent and black artistry that is part of the black Asheville artist movement and bringing it all together, which has not been done in so long.”

Hayes continues, “There have to be spaces that allow people of color to start healing from the generational trauma, from systemic racism.” He sees Black Nativity: Liberation Holiday as one of those healing spaces. “We are bringing people together … for an explosion of energy and creativity. It’s going to make people think about what liberation really means to them. That’s what I’m looking forward to.”

WHAT: Black Nativity: Liberation Holiday, tickets at southsiderising.com
WHERE/WHEN: Arthur R. Edington Center, 133 Livingston St., Saturday, Dec, 15. 2 and 7 p.m. By donation
WHERE/WHEN: Burton Street Center, 134 Burton St., Sunday, Dec. 16, 5 p.m. By donation
WHERE/WHEN: Stephens Lee Recreation Center, 30 George Washington Carver Ave., Tuesday, Dec. 18, 7 p.m. By donation
WHERE/WHEN: Asheville Community Theatre, 35 E. Walnut St., Friday, Dec. 21, 7:30 p.m. $5 youth/$15 general/$20 reserved
WHERE/WHEN: YMI Cultural Center, 39 S. Market St., Sunday, Dec. 23, 7:30 p.m. $5 youth/$15 general/$20 reserved

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