'Black Nativity' Showcases Gospel Music, Family and Community Connections

Oronde S. Sharif standing in atmospheric lightingAn artistic legacy — passed from mother to son — lives on at the University of Pittsburgh each year with the gospel musical “Black Nativity.”

Based on poet and playwright Langston Hughes’ adaptation of the classic nativity story, this dramatization of Christ’s birth is marking its 24th year at Pitt and continues the work of one family of Pitt alumni and faculty members, bringing a distinctive multicultural holiday experience to the city of Pittsburgh.

“Black Nativity”

When: 8 p.m. Dec. 15, 16, 21, 22 and 23. 5 p.m. Dec. 17.

Where: Seventh-floor auditorium of Alumni Hall, 4227 Fifth Ave., in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

Tickets: $25 general admission; $10 for senior citizens, ages 17 and younger, and college students with identification.

More information: 412-586-7903 or www.blacknativitypgh.com

“Black Nativity is one of the few holiday musicals that speaks directly to the experiences of African-Americans,” said Oronde S. Sharif, a lecturer in Pitt’s Department of Africana Studies. “The play helps to fill a cultural void within the city of Pittsburgh. At the same time, it possesses an inclusive message of togetherness that all people can relate to and enjoy.”

Sharif has led productions of “Black Nativity” for the past 18 years. He has been a cast member nearly every season since his mother — the late alumna and faculty member Shona J. Sharif (EDUC ’86) — brought the production to Pitt in 1993. Sharif’s brother, Pittsburgh artist Hassan Sharif, annually designs marketing materials for the production as well as alterations to the set’s design.

“To say that this production has been a major part of my family would be a tremendous understatement. Outside of my immediate family, the cast and crew who come together to make this happen every year are very much like a family to me,” said Sharif.

In addition to the Shona Sharif African Dance and Drum Ensemble led by Oronde Sharif, Pitt’s "Black Nativity" is co-produced by the Hill Dance Academy Theatre under the direction of current Pitt graduate student Ayisha Morgan-Lee. The production is directed by Debbie Blunden-Diggs, artistic director for the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company.

Composed of a cast of more than 60 local actors, dancers, drummers and vocalists — from toddlers to baby boomers —“Black Nativity” features more than 25 dance and musical performances during its two-hour run. Act 1 tells the story of the birth of Jesus, using African drums and dance routines. Act 2 serves as a series of testimonials told through biblical scripture and gospel music. Music selections include such classics as “Joy to the World,” “My Way’s Cloudy” and “Oh, Jerusalem in the Morning.”

“Black Nativity” has been performed in major venues across the nation and in Europe since Hughes authored the play in the 1960s. In 2013, the play’s second act was loosely adapted into a motion picture of the same name, starring Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker. The Sharif family has played an integral role in making Pittsburgh’s version of the story a lasting success.

Prior to bringing “Black Nativity” to Pitt, Shona J. Sharif choreographed the play for the Wilkinsburg Arts Council in various East End venues throughout the 1980s. A senior lecturer of Africana studies, she taught Caribbean, African and African-American dance courses as well as classes focused on African-American health.

Outside of Pitt, Shona J. Sharif is perhaps best known for founding the African Dance and Drum Ensemble, a Pittsburgh-based performing arts organization, which is the forerunner to the Shona Sharif African Dance and Drum Ensemble, with fellow Pitt alumnus Willie Anku (A&S ’86G, ’88G) in the early 1980s. In addition to “Black Nativity,” the organization produced award-winning shows throughout Southwestern Pennsylvania for nearly 20 years, including “Swing Low, Sweet in the Morning” and “African Fables.” Sharif’s work was most notably recognized by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Excellence in Dance Award and the Pittsburgh Dance Council, among other notable performing arts organizations.

Upon his mother’s death in June 1999, Oronde Sharif took on the role of artistic director and has continued “Black Nativity” and its legacy of award-winning productions. Under his guidance, “Black Nativity” has been recognized by such notable artistic organizations as the African American Council of the Arts.

Keeping source material fresh through constant revision of the script and dance performances has been a priority throughout Sharif’s tenure. However, he said, the key to the production’s long-term success has been nurturing the sentiment of family in the production.

“‘Black Nativity’ is a story about family values and traditions,” said Sharif. “It is a pleasure and a privilege to bring Langston Hughes’ classic to a university community and a much larger city audience that I’ve been a part of my entire life.”