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Finding Christmas in Darfur: New Freedom Theatre's Black Nativity

The play Black Nativity by Langston Hughes opened in New York in 1961, and was adapted for film in 2013. As WRTI’s Susan Lewis reports, New Freedom Theatre in Philadelphia is staging another version of this Christmas story, set in Darfur.Black Nativity: An African Holiday Musical is at the New Freedom Theatre at 1346 North Broad Street in Philadelphia through December 18th.

Listen to New Freedom Theatre Artistic Director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj talk about his production of Black Nativity, and his decision to set the story in Darfur.

Radio script:

AMBIENT: Sounds of Darfur

Susan Lewis: Black Nativity begins its story with an African woman named Darfur Mary sitting in a refugee camp.

Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj: She is pregnant, and her husband has been taken away from her, and she loses her faith.

SL: New Freedom Theatre's artistic director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj says the spirit of the mothers he met while working in Africa moved him to set his production of Black Nativity in modern day Darfur.

RRM: Many were scarred; some of them had been brutalized. But they were so hopeful. They believed their children could become Nelson Mandela.

SL: In the play, Darfur Mary is visited by ancestors, who take her on a spiritual journey back to biblical times. Music plays a critical role—as it does in life.

RRM: The women used their voices, their thighs, to create the music, so we’re doing that as well. The cast makes all the sounds.

SL: As the story unfolds, love and faith combat the darkness.

RRM:  I really wanted to honor these women who were in the camps, who, despite it all, created music every day for their little girls and  little boys.  

And Darfur continues. It is the worst human rights disaster—and despite that, you leave hopeful. Because this woman believes, like Mary did in biblical times, that her son can become a force for good.

SL: Black Nativity tells its story with gospel songs and Christmas carols, sung a cappella, with African drumming and dance.

Listen to New Freedom Theatre Executive Producing Director Sandra Norris Haughton talk about the founding and mission of this historic theater.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.