BOSTON -- My love of "Black Nativity" comes from more than being a stage dad for my two participating sons. The easy reason is that this stage version of Jesus' birth, currently running at Tremont Temple in Boston, is plain good. It has run here for 27 years. When it made its debut 35 years ago on Broadway, critics hailed it for its "wild, pounding rapture" and its "uninhibited spirits and unlimited lung power."
The main reason is that "Black Nativity" itself is a miracle. It was written by Langston Hughes, a great poet who had little or no faith in traditional religion.
Hughes had a complicated childhood, a deadbeat father consumed with self-hate of black people, a little-seen mother and white school teachers who tried to kill his spirit. In 1915, an aunt took him to church to be saved. Hughes said: "The whole congregation prayed for me alone, in a mighty wail of moans and voices. And I kept waiting serenely for Jesus, waiting, waiting -- but he didn't come. I wanted to see him, but nothing happened to me. Nothing!"
Hughes lied to the minister that Jesus came to him. He went home and cried for one of only two times in his life, according to biographer Arnold Rampersad. He wrote that Hughes felt so alone that "every intimate force" in him became dedicated to "seeking the love and approval of the race, which would become the grand obsession of his life."
His obsession led him in two directions at the same time. He visited African-American churches to witness the song and the drama of the service. He also wrote in 1932, "Goodbye Christ," a scathing rejection of organized Christianity and praise of communism that earned him the scrutiny of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (and later Sen. Joseph McCarthy) and prompted cancellations of some public events.
During World War II, Hughes wrote "The Sun Do Move," a hope- ful vision of America of "schools and churches everywhere," of African-Americans "blossoming like a rose," and of "black and white together."
By the mid 1950s, his interest in gospel music led him to knock commercially successful singers who barely mentioned God. Through his fictitious voice of Jesse B. Semple, he wrote: "Some gospel singers these days are making so much money, when you hear them crying, 'I Cannot Bear My Burden Alone,' what they really mean is 'Help me get my cross to my Cadillac.' "
In 1959, he wrote a series of newspaper articles on the meaning of God in different religions. Mr. Rampersad observed that Hughes, who still did not attend a church, might have had a professional motive to erase a lingering image as an atheist, but the articles represented honest inquiry.
When God speaks
"I don't know very much about God -- but I have a feeling that God is related to everything and everybody on earth," Hughes wrote. "God may keep silent for a long time, but when He speaks, the map of history is changed. . . . Try to step between me and God -- and you will be thinner than a shadow and less of a wall than the evening fog."
In 1961, Hughes was commissioned to write a play where gospel music was front and center. The boy who lied to his minister was now a man who wrote about Mary and Joseph being barred from an inn "where only men of means get in/ By a door closed to the poor, Christ is born on earthen floor."
That was "Black Nativity." It would also be a hit in Europe. Hughes had another acclaimed gospel show, "Jericho-Jim Crow." Hughes could not sing, play an instrument or write music. But a star of "Jericho-Jim Crow," Gilbert Price, said of him, "I got joy from him, and a great deal of understanding, and I know he got joy from me. I saw his loneliness, but he never let it come between us. . . . He had a smile like a little child, a smile that came out of his eyes."
That was the smile of a child who connected with the spirit. Hughes rejected organized religion as sure as the innkeeper rejected Mary and Joseph. But he was also testimony to the pull of the spirit. Just as no one would have believed that a baby in rags would become savior to one-third of Earth, no one would have thought that the author of "Goodbye Christ" would have a play about Christ's birth that is attended by thousands of people in Boston each year.
Playwright Loften Mitchell said Hughes "hated dishonesty in the church." That candidness got him into trouble. It also led him back to his people. "Black Nativity" is easy to praise as art. It is more moving to consider that its author may not have been writing solely about the birth of Jesus. Hughes may have been writing about his own rebirth as well.
Derrick Z. Jackson is a Boston Globe columnist.
Pub Date: 12/25/96