When the Virgin Mary Was a Black Woman: On Boston’s Black Nativity Tradition

When I observed a Black dancer performing the birth of Christ onstage, I thought of the overlooked and radical part of this biblical story

Illustration: Alexis Eke

GGrowing up, we knew it was Christmas when we made it to Black Nativity. Boston has been running productions of Black Nativity every December for as long as I’ve been alive. At some point in November or December, my mother would pay for seats at a show—a wasted expense since we spent most of the performance in the aisles. Back then, when the show was closer to its origins as a Black-is-beautiful-inspired off-Broadway show, penned by Langston Hughes, people would freely dance in the aisles, catch the spirit, clap and sing, and join the show.

But the production was magic to me because it included the raw moment of Mary in labor. Every year, we would watch the dancer playing Mary act out her labor while a flurry of African drums played around her. She danced around the stage, crumpling at the waist, moving left and right. Joseph would move to touch her, and she would push him off. She’d shake, fall to her knees. A few times, Joseph would lift her up, and she would circle her legs wide, turning the pain into dance.

When we were children and came home from the performances, my sisters and I would spend weeks playing Mary. We would put towels on our heads to mimic her headdress, and we would twirl, our little-girl hands hovering around our waists, arching backs, bucking back and forth, giggling at the absurdity and beauty of birth.

BBoston’s version of Black Nativity is the longest-running production in the world. It has been running since 1970. The production of Black Nativity calla for a chorus made up of all ages — children as young as four and five, older kids, teenagers, adults, and elders. It is part of the show’s charm that all sing together. The production is always the same, though where it’s staged varies. As a child, I remember it being in a low, white building with golden velvet interiors, but it also moved from the Boston Opera House to Tremont Temple to Roxbury Community College to the Paramount in Downtown Crossing. Sometimes it was staged in Boston’s Black neighborhoods, sometimes in the White downtown. It was always produced by the National Center of Afro-American Artists, a Black arts organization founded by local artistic powerhouse Elma Lewis.

Lewis was someone my mother always spoke about with great affection. She founded the arts organization in 1968, but even before that, for 18 years she ran a school of fine arts for Black children. Lewis had been a part of Boston’s Black cultural life for decades. The first time I met her—really met her—was in high school, when I finally auditioned to be on the stage myself. Whenever a prospective chorus member would get up to sing, Lewis would keep time with her cane. Sometimes, if she didn’t like what you were doing, she would swipe at you with it.

It was finally being on stage and seeing the show from the perspective of a chorus member, looking out, that changed things for me. As a teenager in the show, watching the dancer move, I was struck only by how close she was. I could hear her breathing hard over the silence of the theater. I could hear her feet strike the ground. When she fanned out her legs from under her skirt, I could hear the rush of fabric, smell the breath of sweat and exertion. At first, I felt embarrassed for the dancer. Sometimes, the girls in the chorus with me would mutter about some of the Marys, which ones they thought opened her legs too wide. But in front of an audience, night after night, the embarrassment burned away, and I felt something else. I felt the power of seeing words made flesh.

The fundamental part of the miracle of Christ is the act of God born unto a woman.

I am not a practicing Christian. I was in Black Nativity because I had always loved the music, plus it was fall semester of my senior year of high school and I was scrabbling for one more extracurricular activity to put on my applications. So it took me a long time to understand what I felt on that stage.

The fundamental part of the miracle of Christ is the act of God born unto a woman. I think how so often, in church, my eyes would skip over that line, not registering what it meant. It did not become clear to me, how radical that is, what a miracle that is, until I saw the dancer each year, saw the sweat under her head scarf as she moved, as she labored, heard her breathe heavy, saw her legs tremble when the dance was finished.

What does it mean that a religion that has been used to justify so much violence toward and exploitation of women is built around this fundamental story? When I watched Black Nativity, as a child and as a teen member of the chorus, Mary’s labor looked difficult; it looked hard. But it did not appear to be a punishment or a cross to bear. It looked exalted. It was that exaltation that led me and my sisters to mimic it as children, that made me catch my breath on stage each night in the chorus as the drums swelled.

InIn the past few years, I have found beauty in reading scripture as poetry, as metaphor. Like many who read the scriptures this way, I came to this through the Song of Solomon. A conversation with a friend, a poet turned translator, told me of the more radical, womanist translations of the psalms that position that piece as not only explicitly about sex, but about sex that centers women’s bodies specifically. From this revelation, I have come to find a way toward a reading of the Bible outside the harmful systems set up in its name.

It is a celebration and exoneration of the femme, that persona of work and softness and labor and grace that is often portrayed as lesser than maleness. It is a recognition that liberation can be found in the parts of life that we are told are frightening, messy, unruly.

The roots of Christianity are built on acknowledging this labor—a labor that a man cannot do. In its most generous reading, it is a celebration and exoneration of the femme, that persona of work and softness and labor and grace that is often portrayed as lesser than maleness. It is a recognition that liberation can be found in the parts of life that we are told are frightening, messy, unruly. I gave birth this year, after reading all the reports on Black maternal health, after writing one of those reports myself, after talking to Black doulas and working with one to attend my birth. The process was surreal, at times boring, at times fraught. I was aware how much my body was not my own, became a thing to be monitored, to be admonished when it did not follow expected outcomes. To think that this unpredictable, deeply individualized experience is at the heart of the Christmas story is profound. It reminded me of how much this story has been co-opted, retold, misdirected; how rarely we are encouraged to sit with what the images of the story mean.

The history of the world is also bent on telling us that any work that women do is not as worthy as the work a man does, that it cannot possibly contribute to the whole in the ways that men do. But here is a woman’s work that holds the whole world, that points us to a true liberation. It is an idea so radical that most people still can’t fully grasp it.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store