When Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity” first made its way to the Broadway stage in 1961, the soulful retelling of the Christmas story was a surprise hit. Nearly 50 years later, the gospel play has become a holiday staple for many, right up there with “The Nutcracker” or “Elf.”

For the past two years, the Theater Alliance has put its own twist on the classic in a production at the H Street Playhouse. Directed by local gospel singer, actor and pastor
Stephawn Stephens, the play tells the story of Jesus’ birth through a mix of spirituals, poetry and dance. The result is a rousing musical-meets-church revival that Stephens says celebrates the “exuberance and joy that is within the black experience.”

Inspired by the intimacy of the space, Stephens plans to emphasize storytelling over pageantry in this year’s performance. He’s also taken cues from original Broadway director Vinnette Carroll, with whom he worked before her death in 2002.

From Carroll, Stephens says, he learned to “make sure that you tell the story.” That means the elaborate costuming and staging often found in “Black Nativity” productions will take a backseat to the narrative.

But one thing he hasn’t touched is the scene of the birth of baby Jesus — played this year by a friend’s newborn. “Mary has just done this wonderful dance to give birth,” Stephens explains.

“It’s filled with drums, lots of sounds; there’s a dramatic change in the lighting.” Afterward, the infant is brought onstage. “It’s always awesome to see the audience’s reaction,” he says.

» H Street Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE; through Jan. 2, $35; 202-399-7993.

Written by Express contributor Kristina Gray
Photo courtesy Theater Alliance