Written by the poet Langston Hughes and first performed in 1961, Black Nativity is a retelling of the classic Christmas story featuring gospel music and an all-black cast. It's also a Seattle institution, with the talent-packed local production—directed by Jacqueline Moscou, choreographed by Donald Byrd, with musical direction by the Total Experience Gospel Choir's Pastor Patrinell Wright—playing to packed houses (first at the Intiman, then at the Moore) every year from 1998 to 2012.
At the center of Black Nativity is the simple and familiar story of a mother, a father, and their son. These characters aren't so much real-life humans as figures in a mythic play about parents and children, love and fear, judgment and forgiveness. In the Seattle stage production, the story is brought to life with serious theatrics, provided by a 30-member choir, nearly a dozen dancers, and a live band. In the Hollywood film adaptation, things are powered by original Raphael Saadiq compositions—performed in classic musical style, with characters bursting out in song during regular life—and interstitial rapping by Nas.
But the primary draw of the film is its A-list talent (Saadiq and Nas included). Nothing can enliven a big, broad, familiar story like great actors, ones who see clichés as challenges, and who can fill the spindliest outline of a character with vibrant life. Forest Whitaker leads the charge as the pastor and patriarch, with a luminous Angela Bassett as his wife. Jennifer Hudson plays the prodigal daughter with a vanity-free earthiness and a humongous voice. And Mary J. Blige plays some semimystical angel figure in a hilarious white Afro wig. The result is essentially a full-length Christmas music video about the power of love and forgiveness, but the star-packed cast and Kasi Lemmons's stylish direction makes it all float by like a dream.