The theater at Morgan State University pulsates with so much energy it's just about radioactive.
Some 25 actors, singers, dancers and musicians from the school's theater department are rehearsing Langston Hughes' gospel-song play Black Nativity, which opens today.
The performers swirl on stage in a montage of African rhythms and gospel music celebrating, as the spiritual says, the birth of the "Sweet Little Jesus Boy." On this night, the Morgan troupe is performing a final run-through before tackling technical and dress rehearsals. They start early and go all night - dancing and singing and preaching this Christmas story by Hughes based upon the writings of the evangelist Luke.
Hughes, of course, was a great poet of the Harlem Renaissance. His works include the endlessly quoted "A Dream Deferred" and almost equally famous, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." Called the most original of African-American poets, he was also an accomplished novelist, columnist, essayist and playwright.
Black Nativity "is a tradition: an African-American tradition. It's on the parallel with that of the Nutcracker and the Christmas Carol, for our culture," says Dave Mitchell, the director.
The play is being performed at Morgan for the third time. But Mitchell, an instructor in the theater department, is directing the show for the first time. "Two of our nights are sold out. People are catching wind of this tradition that is growing at Morgan." Every year it gets larger and larger. I'd imagine in the next year or two we're not going to be able to keep it in this space. And that's a good thing, definitely."
The performance brings together Morgan students and community members. The drums are played by 16-year-old Charles Wilson, whose dynamic beats propel the gospel singing and dance. One of the elders is played by Gail Nayes, a sophomore at Morgan. The narrator is the Rev. Reginald Thomas Sr., pastor of the Gethsemane Baptist Missionary Church in East Baltimore. Thomas was recruited by a member of his church, Sammy Real, a theater student who's part of the stage crew.
"I love the script. I love seeing their energy," Thomas says. "There's a certain call-and-response dialogue aspect to preaching. But not since I've been a kid have I been on stage"
Leslie Catherine Sanders, a professor at Toronto's York University who edited the dramatic works in Volume No. 6 (of 16) of Hughes' collected works, calls the gospel plays "his most enduring contribution to the American theater." She quotes the playwright describing his visits to Harlem churches that became the basis of the work: "I was never bored. Song and a sense of drama swirled around me. A mingling of ancient scripture and contemporary problems were projected with melodic intensity and rhythmic insistence."
She could be describing what's happening on the Morgan stage. But Mitchell has updated the play, especially the music.
"The play was written in 1961, so all the music in it is pretty antiquated," the director says. "It's written so that the first part is [set] during biblical times. And then the second part is supposed to come forward into contemporary times. But contemporary times in 1961 were totally different from what they are now.
"This year's concept," he says, "is that we're transplanting the story, somewhat, to Africa, adding traditional African dance and music to the first part of it. Then in the second part we are incorporating the elements of modern day hip-hop, and trying to show the parallels between the two through the song and the dance."
On stage, choreographer Mari Andrea, a senior, is leading a dozen dancers and singers in an old spiritual with a new beat:
"This old building has got a leak
And my soul has got to move."
"That's definitely a traditional song in the church," says Mitchell. "The way we're doing it is completely different. Actually, some of the cast didn't want to do it because it's so traditional, it's their grandmother's cup of tea. But look at them now!"
Andrea, moving fluently as she coaches her dancers, doesn't look like anybody's grandmother. She's a third generation dancer whose grandmother, Willia Bland, founded the Flair Studio of Dance in her West Baltimore home in 1968. "We are using our bodies to teach gospel," she says.
In the Hughes papers there is no "coherent typescript for Black Nativity," Sanders notes. "There seem to be several versions of the play," she writes, "using different songs in different sequences."
Mitchell is deeply respectful of Hughes' work in his direction of Black Nativity.
"He's one of the founders of the Harlem Renaissance," he says. Hughes was creating a new thing, Mitchell says, a gospel musical.
"The event itself was something great, something groundbreaking," Mitchell says. "We want to re-create that feeling every year with our production - that groundbreaking feeling, that new exciting buzz."