Mark Henderson's dark skin gleams in the green and white stage lights of the University Park Auditorium on the Jackson State University campus. The group of 20 or so performers in this weekend's "Black Nativity: (some of them members of the Mississippi Mass Choir), ranging in age 8 to mid-40s, start to congregate in the cavernous room to rehearse. Looking on, Henderson, 33, talks about his MADDRAMA (Making A Difference Doing Respectable And Meaningful Art) acting troupe that is presenting the play. The JSU alumnus and professor started the group in 1996 for students interested in developing their theatrical skills; it has now grown to encompass students and non-students alike.
"I started this because there was no African-American theater in Jackson that I knew of," Henderson says. African-American theater is defined by Henderson as "theater done by black people, for black people, and about black people."
Henderson would like to see black theater move away from being so stereotypical. "Theater has two jobs—to entertain and to educate," he says. "If you'e just entertaining, you're a comedian." Gearing more for the Sidney Poitier school of acting, Henderson wants to create more serious art. He wants to create a foundation for African-American theater in Jackson, much as New Stage is for white theater, he says. Henderson wants a place to house the acting troupe year-round, where they can have a regular season in which "Black Nativity" could have a yearly run.
"Black Nativity" is what writer and poet Langston Hughes called his "Gospel Song-Play," based on the scriptures of Luke. Premiering in New York's 41st Street Theater in 1961, it has been called a driving force of the Civil Rights Movement. Greeted in Europe by kings and queens, the New York Times said then that "sophisticated Italian audiences greeted 'Black Nativity' with enthusiasm, taking part in the singing and hand clapping and insisting on curtain call after curtain call." Nicknamed "The Black Messiah from Broadway," the play cannot be called a typical Christmas musical. Its second act takes place in a black church in the ghetto of Chicago, and the child of peace is born to black parents.
Henderson calls for more support for the arts. "I want people to become ambassadors of the arts. Support it. What we're trying to do is not for us, it's for the audience." "Black Nativity" has entertained and informed Martin Luther King Jr., Ray Charles, the King and Queen of Denmark, Duke Ellington and even the Beatles in its 41-year history. Now it's Jackson's turn.
"Black Nativity" will be performed in the Jacob L. Reddix Student Union Buildings General Purpose Room at JSU for the Margaret Walker Alexander Research Center's Annual Dinner Theater on Friday, Dec. 6 at 7 p.m. and again Sunday, Dec. 8, in the Canton High School Auditorium at 3:30 p.m.
—J. Bingo Holman