Black Nativity is a gospel re-telling of the birth of Jesus Christ by Langston Hughes. It’s more of a “holiday concert with dancing” than a traditional musical. A choir of performers from the local African-American community was assembled for our production. However, Joseph and Mary were professional dancers.
I was the dresser on Black Nativity for almost five hundred performances over the span of eleven Christmas seasons. Most of the cast wore their own plain black clothing with some brightly colored, African print pieces (furnished by the theatre) layered on top. A dress code had to be established. Stage management and I had to be pretty strict: come to the theatre in discreet black clothing, or you can’t perform in the show that night.
The director of Black Nativity gave herself a standing invitation to join in the performance and PERFORM wherever she wanted. The costume shop provided her with her own African print wrap just like what the other women wore over their black clothes, and she had her own space set aside in the dressing room. With little to no warming, she could show up, get dressed, and hit the stage with the cast.
December 24, half-hour call: Ms. Director arrived at the theatre, planning to perform. She frantically walks into my office needing some help with her costume. I look down and couldn’t help noticing that she was wearing bright red pumps.
“Don’t forget to change your shoes,” I remind her.
“I left my black shoes at home so I’m going to wear these,” Ms. Director responded.
“Oh,” is all I said.
It’s her show. I wasn’t going to tell the director of Black Nativity what she can and can’t wear.
Ms. Director left my office.
A few moments later she returned —this time with the stage manager.
“Do we have any black shoes for her to wear?” asked the stage manager. Costume storage wasn’t in the building. I had no shoes to offer.
The irony: just like Joseph and Mary looking for shelter on Christmas Eve, I watched the director and stage manager go room-to-room backstage.
“Extra black shoes?”
“Extra black shoes?”
“Help a woman out with some black shoes?”
No. No. No extra black shoes at the theatre.
Ms. Director sung her solo “Silent Night” wearing her bright red shoes for that performance. Langston Hughes meets red shoes. It made me chuckle.
Many of the performers in Black Nativity came back year after year. A few of them became friends of mine. One of my favorites was the dancer who played The Virgin Mary. She was a very dedicated dancer who danced all over town. She was our longest running Virgin Mary and we had experienced a lot over the years: a show during a blizzard; shows during a citywide riot; and we witnessed a few riots in the dressing rooms. She faithfully played Mary to several different Josephs from year to year.
“Girl, you got more ex-husbands than Elizabeth Taylor,” I teased.
One year, The Virgin Mary happened to be pregnant in real life. No tummy padding was needed that time. She had a special connection with grown man who played The Little Drummer Boy from the year before. They were expected a child that spring. It didn’t surprise me to see Mary was still dancing during her pregnancy, but I was relieved to learn the theatre provided her with an understudy (which wasn’t typical).
We had our dress rehearsals of Black Nativity around Thanksgiving. It didn’t look like the choreography had changed very much to accommodate Mary’s pregnancy; she was still whipping and grooving all over the stage just like she always had. The audience would have never known that she was expecting or how far along as she was. But The Virgin Mary seemed a bit grumpy this season: nothing too harsh. I chalked it up to nerves and morning sickness.
Our holiday show opened to the usual fanfare and settled into it’s run. But things felt tense and grew quiet in the dressing rooms that year. Something was in the air. I could feel it.
December 24, intermission: there’s a concerned performer standing in my office door.
“Dennis, there’s a problem in the women’s dressing room.”
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Mary has locked herself in the bathroom stall. She might be in trouble.”
I called 911.
The foggy streets were nearly empty when I went outside to flag down the ambulance. Stage management hustled everyone back onstage for Act Two and the show continued. For the first time (and hopefully only time) in my career, I guided a team of paramedics to the dressing rooms; one of them was wearing a Santa Claus hat. It was heartbreaking to witness the EMTs wheeling The Virgin Mary out of the theatre; her tunic and veil left behind.
December 25: Everyone was quite worried about Mary while they celebrated the holiday with their families.
December 26: There were still three more performances of Black Nativity left. I got a telephone call at home that morning telling me that the understudy for The Virgin Mary would be finishing the run of the show. It didn’t surprise me. I was afraid to ask why.
At the theater that evening, there was mumblings that Mary didn’t know she was in labor during her last show. A discreet company announcement was made at half hour call. The show must go on.
What Child is this,
Who laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom Angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
Oh, the irony. The Virgin Mary had a miscarried a baby boy on Christmas Day. It was spooky and sad. It was the darkest performance of Black Nativity imaginable.
Our Mary was a dedicated performer. The Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale had played out backstage. The dancer simply couldn’t stop dancing.
Langston Hughes meets The Red Shoes again.
This time it brought me to tears.
Dennis Milam Bensie is a writer and, for thirty years, has made his living as a dresser in professional theatre all over the United States. Short stories and poetry by Dennis have been featured in numerous publications and his essays have been seen in The Huffington Post, Boys on the Brink, and The Good Men Project. He has three books published by Coffeetown Press. This essay is part of a series for Queen Mob's Teahouse on his experience working backstage.