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A Christmas vision
Clinton Powell's dream lives on with 'Black Nativity'
Darrell Davis and Candace Saunders play Joseph and Mary in "Black Nativity"

A lot has changed for the Performing Arts Collective of Savannah since last year’s inaugural performance of Langston Hughes’ Christmas play Black Nativity.

First and foremost, Clinton Powell, who shaped and directed the production – a blend of music, poetry, dance and dramatic narrative – passed away on Jan. 2.

“A lot of it was his vision last year,” says dancer and choreographer Muriel Miller, “and even from his hospital bed he was still giving us things to do.

“Our plan, initially, was to do it every year, just like everybody else does The Nutcracker every year. So we tried to figure out ‘What would he do? What would he change?’ and go from there and keep it moving.”

The 2011 Black Nativity is being staged at Muse Arts Warehouse – last time, it was in New Covenant Church – and it is, as before, a co–production between Miller’s Abeni Dance Company, Powell’s Spitfire Poetry Group and the Eastside Players, represented by musician, composer, arranger (and Black Nativity co–director) Gary Swindell.

Productions of Black Nativity – which debuted in 1961 as Wasn’t it a Mighty Day? – tend to be quite liberal in their adaptations, Miller says.

“The play itself has the songs already in it, but you can change it to however you see fit,” she points out.

According to Swindell’s directing partner, Darowe McMillon, it was Powell’s idea to keep the story – a re–telling of the birth of Christ, told from an African–American perspective – as true to Hughes’ original blueprint as possible.

“The play is written in general vernacular dialogue to fit any kind of mood, or any kind of church,” explains McMillon.

“The second part of the play was designed for future productions, with changes in the music. Hughes says that in his notes – so that whatever time period you do it in, you can always fit it towards your audience.”

Powell “wanted to make sure we kept true to the basic idea of the play. That we didn’t veer off from it. And also making sure that we incorporated all the different elements of the poetry and the dance, and the singing, and made it blend in and flow smoothly. So we’re making sure we keep it really, really tight.”

For McMillon and company, that was a no–brainer. “There are books you read, and you fall in love with the book, and it just takes one bad director to mess it completely up,” he laughs.

“There’s a way to change things, and mold things, the way you like without destroying the whole story.”

While Black Nativity includes 10 Abeni dancers – including Miller herself – the entire cast is called upon to contribute in different ways. “Everybody does a little bit of everything,” she explains. “The dancers have to sing, the singers have to dance, and everybody has to act at some point.”

The music is a mix of traditional and contemporary gospel, with touches of reggae, blues and popular music. Swindell has re–arranged much of it, and wrote three new songs for this year’s production.

And that’s where the collaborative process begins. “He puts his own little spin on everything, and when I hear the music I just create and do whatever I feel,” says Miller. “And what looks good on the dancers.”

Judging from the positive audience response after the 2010 shows, Powell’s idea was sound. “People said that they’d seen past productions that didn’t seem to follow the mold of the play,” explains McMillon. “So we try to make sure that we do that. Because it’s actually a really good story – you can’t really beat the Nativity story, as far as the story of all stories to be told.”

All four performances will be dedicated to Powell’s memory.

A special education teacher at East Broad Elementary School, McMillon – a writer, poet and spoken–word performer – is not part of the cast.

“I like to say that my position will be somewhere in the back, or doing technical stuff, running around with my head cut off,” he says.

“I get to worry while everybody else gets to perform.”

Performing Arts Collective of Savannah

Black Nativity

Where: Muse Arts Warehouse, 703D Louisville Road

When: At 7 p.m. Thursday–Saturday, Dec. 15–17; also at 3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 17

Tickets: $10

Reservations and information: (912) 631–3452 or (912) 272–2797