The local production of ‘Black Nativity’ has uplifting message for Philadelphia audiences

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Local production of 'Black Nativity' has uplifting message for Philadelphia audiences
'Black Nativity' production has uplifting message for Philadelphia audiences at University of the Arts WPVI

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI): As John Graves works on a bright green garment at a sewing machine, his concentration makes it clear that every stitch is significant because it’s part of a vision he’s bringing to life.

“I write and produce a lot of plays,” said the Philadelphia native of his career as an educator-turned-playwright.

Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity is the latest production Graves will bring to the stage. It’s a nativity story from an African-American perspective that was written in 1961.

“Most people don’t know that when you get the Black Nativity script, you have the liberty and freedom to present it how you want it,” said Graves.

The upcoming presentation, which debuts Wednesday at the University of the Arts in Center City, includes a second act written by Graves, who had music in mind.

“The production features deep house, techno, rhythm, and blues,” he said of the re-imagined second act, which also includes the classic gospel melodies many audiences have come to expect from Black Nativity.

“It is my rendition, representing Philadelphia and the surrounding areas,” he said.
The director is also focused on sharing a message that isn’t always shared during the holidays.

“People might be feeling lonely or sad,” he said, adding that the production means to address those difficult feelings in a way that makes Philadelphia audiences feel uplifted.
“Not in a way to make people feel burdened, but to make people feel seen and heard,” he said.

Some of that message he’ll deliver personally on-stage, as Graves is also performing in the production.
“I sing in this, I act in this, I dance in this,” he said, “because I want to have some fun!”

Cast members range in age from 5 to 65. All of them are local.
“South Philly, North Philly, and West Philly,” Graves said. “When we put out the casing call, people came from all over.”
He hopes the production of Black Nativity provides not just entertainment but emotion, leaving audiences feeling the three words he wrote down when conceptualizing the second act.
“Refreshed, inspired, and beautiful,” he said.

Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity runs December 20th–24th at the University of the Arts on Broad Street in Center City. Tickets start at $40. Group discounts are available. For more information, visit

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