Arizona Artbeat: Black Theatre Troupe

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The Black Theatre Troupe will be reprising its popular “Black Nativity” play, written by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes and first performed in 1961. Black Nativity tells the original story of the Nativity in scripture, verse, music and dance. Director David Hemphill will tell us about the unique production.

TED SIMONS: THE BLACK THEATRE TROUPE IS REPRISING ITS PERFORMANCE OF "BLACK NATIVITY," A SONG-PLAY WRITTEN BY HARLEM RENAISSANCE POET LANGSTON HUGHES AND FIRST PERFORMED IN 1961. BLACK THEATER TROUPE DIRECTOR DAVID HEMPHILL TELLS US ABOUT THIS UNIQUE PRODUCTION. WELCOME TO ARIZONA HORIZON.

DAVID HEMPHILL: THANK YOU FOR HAVING US.

TED SIMONS: GIVE ME A BETTER DEFINITION? WHAT IS BLACK NATIVITY?

DAVID HEMPHILL: WELL IT'S A RETELLING OF THE CHRISTMAS STORY, PARTICULARLY THE NATIVITY. IT USES SOME TRADITIONAL CHRISTMAS HYMNS OR SONGS THAT ARE DONE IN A GOSPEL STYLE. THEN THERE IS SOME SONGS WRITTEN SPECIFICALLY FOR THE SHOW. AND THEN WE ADD SONGS OF OUR OWN. SO IT IS A CHRISTMAS STORY.

TED SIMONS: YOU HAVE SCRIPTURE, VERSE, AND DANCE.

DAVID HEMPHILL: YES, MARY, JOSEPH, AND THE ANGEL ARE DANCE ROLES. THEY ARE MUTE AND THEY DANCE. THIS YEAR, WE HAVE A VERY WONDERFUL MARY. SHE IS WITH SCOTTSDALE BALLET AND SHE IS WONDERFUL.

TED SIMONS: WOW THAT SOUNDS GREAT. NOW ARE THESE TRADITIONAL CAROLS SUNG GOSPEL STYLE? TRADITIONAL SUNG TRADITIONAL? GOSPEL HYMNS SANG -- GIVE ME THE EQUATION.

DAVID HEMPHILL: SOME ARE TRADITIONAL CAROLS, SOME WITH A GOSPEL TWIST. EVERYBODY WILL RECOGNIZE GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN BUT NOT OUR VERSION. AND THEY WILL RECOGNIZE JOY TO THE WORLD, COME ALL YEE FAITHFUL AND ALL THE SONGS THAT ARE TRADITIONAL WITH A GOSPEL TWIST.

TED SIMONS: COMPLETE MUSICAL?

DAVID HEMPHILL: THERE IS A NARRATOR. IT DOES SPEAK LANGSTON HUGHES' THE TEXT. BUT FOR THE MOST PART IT IS SUNG THROUGH SHOW.

TED SIMONS: IT WAS DESCRIBED AS A GOSPEL SONG PLAY. MAKE SENSE?

DAVID HEMPHILL: YEAH, IT IS A PLAY AND IT IS VERY ROOTED IN GOSPEL AND THEN IT IS ONE OF THE FIRST AFRICAN-AMERICAN PRODUCTIONS TO BE PRODUCED OFF BROADWAY. SO IT IS ROOTED IN, YOU KNOW, GOOD PLAYING WRITING ALSO.

TED SIMONS: THIS IS A VERY POPLAR PERFORMANCE FOR YOUR GROUP AND FOR GROUPS AROUND THE COUNTRY. DO DIFFERENT GROUPS PERFORM THIS IN DIFFERENT WAYS? LIKE SHAKESPEARE YOU WILL SEE HAMLET DONE AT A BAR IN CHICAGO DIFFERENT FROM ANOTHER ONE. ARE STAGE SETS AND DESIGNS DIFFERENT FROM AROUND THE COUNTRY?

DAVID HEMPHILL: COMPLETELY DIFFERENT. DEPENDS ON THE TASTE OF THE DIRECTOR. THE SAME LICENSE ONE TAKES WITH SHAKESPEARE AND PRODUCTIONS OF SUCH WE DO WITH BLACK NATIVITY. WE MADE AN ADDITION TO THE AFRICAN THEME THIS YEAR. WE HAVE A MORE BIBLICAL STYLE TELLING OF THE STORY.

TED SIMONS: WHAT DO YOU MEAN?

DAVID HEMPHILL: THAT MEANS THAT OUR NARRATOR- INSTEAD OF SPEAKING LANGSTON HUGHES' TEXT IN THE WAY THAT WOULD PROBABLY BE CONSIDERED ACTORS SPEAKING, HE DOES OURS LIKE A GOSPEL MINISTER.

TED SIMONS: AND THAT MAY NOT HAVE BEEN THE WAY IT WAS DONE LAST YEAR OR THE WAY IT WILL BE DONE NEXT YEAR BUT IT IS THE WAY YOU ARE DOING IT.

DAVID HEMPHILL: WE DO IT EVERY YEAR AND WE HAVE A NEW AND EXCITING SET DESIGN THIS YEAR BY JILL BURKES. IT IS WONDERFUL.

TED SIMONS: TALK ABOUT THE CHALLENGES OF PUTTING SOMETHING LIKE THIS ON. SOUNDS LIKE IT INCORPORATES EVERY ASPECT OF A THEATER PERFORMANCE.

DAVID HEMPHILL: IT IS VERY CHALLENGING BUT THE GOOD THING ABOUT IT IS ALL OF THE COMPONENTS CAN BE PUT TOGETHER SEPARATELY. YOU CAN REHEARSE THE DANCERS, AND THE SINGERS SEPARATELY AND THEN THE NARRATOR. NO ONE INTERACTS WITH EACH OTHER. THE CHALLENGE OF SUCH A LARGE PRODUCTION IS DIMINISHED BY BREAKING IT DOWN IN PARTS.

TED SIMONS: MOVE THEM OUT AND MOVE THEM IN KIND OF THING. I KNOW YOU HAVE BEEN AROUND SINCE 1970?

DAVID HEMPHILL: THIS IS OUR 46TH SEASON.

TED SIMONS: HOW ARE YOU DOING?

DAVID HEMPHILL: WE ARE DOING VERY WELL. AS WITH MOST GROUPS, WE WOULD LIKE TO SEE MORE FINANCIAL STABILITY BUT WE ARE DOING WELL. WE WILL BE AROUND FOR A LONG TIME. WE ARE IN OUR NEW FACILITY ON WASHINGTON WHICH WAS PART OF THE CITY BOND IN 2006. WE RECEIVED A BOND FROM THE CITY TO SECURE A PERMANENT FACILITY AND IT IS A BEAUTIFUL FACILITY.

TED SIMONS: I HAD TO SAY THAT HAD TO HAVE HELPED A LOT.

DAVID HEMPHILL: IT HELPED A LOT. IT WAS CHALLENGING BECAUSE THE CITY GIVES YOU THE BUILDING AND YOU HAVE TO RAISE MONEY FOR THE SEATS AND LIGHTS AND EVERYTHING.

TED SIMONS: IS IT MORE DIFFICULT TO RAISE FUNDS AND GET FANNIES IN THE SEAT IN THE DAY OF THE INTERNET?

DAVID HEMPHILL: IT IS MORE DIFFICULT IN THE SENSE YOU HAVE TO BE ABLE TO IDENTIFY HOW TO PROPERLY, AND MOST EFFICIENTLY, USE THE INTERNET OR THE SOCIAL MEDIA. SO IT IS MORE DIFFICULT IN THAT ASPECT. BUT IN TERMS OF THE OLD DAYS OF PUTTING OUT FLYERS AND BANGING ON DOORS OR WHATEVER IT IS MUCH EASIER NOW.

TED SIMONS: IS IT EASY-- PHOENIX IS A GROWING MARKET AND CITY, SO IT IS EASIER TO FIND LOCAL TALENT?

DAVID HEMPHILL: IT DEPENDS. SOME CITIES HAVE A LARGER AFRICAN-AMERICAN POPULATION SO FOR PRODUCTIONS LIKE OURS, WHICH MAINLY PRODUCE WORKS FROM THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN CANON, IT CAN BE A LITTLE DIFFICULT IN FINDING PARTICULAR ROLES OR PARTICULAR CAST MEMBERS. BUT THERE IS A LOT OF GOOD TALENT HERE IN PHOENIX.

TED SIMONS: IS THERE AN EFFORT TO GET MORE INSTRUCTION FOR THE YOUNGER KIDS WHO COME UP FROM THE THEATER ARTS AND GET THAT TALENT POOL GROWING?

DAVID HEMPHILL: YOU HIT IT ON THE NAIL. WE HAVE TWO CHILDREN'S PROGRAMS. ONE IS ROOTED IN LITERACY AND ON THE BACKSIDE WE INTRODUCE THE CHILDREN TO PERFORMING. AND ONE IS SPECIFICALLY A PERFORMANCE COMPANY FOR YOUTH. SO, WE HAVE A LOT OF GOOD PERFORMERS IN THE PIPELINE. WHETHER OR NOT THEY WILL STAY WE DON'T KNOW.

TED SIMONS: AND SO FAR IT IS GETTING A GOOD REACTION FROM THESE KIDS? DOES THE INTEREST SEEM TO BE THERE?

DAVID HEMPHILL: THE INTEREST IS THERE. MORE IMPORTANTLY, IT IS THEIR PARENTS, THAT GENERATION THAT WAS VERY, VERY INVOLVED WITH OUR COMPANY THAT IS VERY SUPPORTIVE OF THE COMPANY AND THE CHILDREN. SO THE INTEREST IS THERE EVEN IF IT IS JUST BECAUSE MOM SAID I HAD TO DO IT.

TED SIMONS: AND YOU GOT TO GET THEIR FACES OUT OF THAT COMPUTER SCREEN. IT HAS TO BE A DIFFICULT THING TO DO THIS DAY AND AGE.

DAVID HEMPHILL: IT CAN BE A LITTLE DIFFICULT BUT THAT IS WHERE PROGRAMS LIKE BOOKS ALIVE COMES INTO PLAY AND WE GIVE THEM SOMETHING TO READ AND LOOK AT. WE USE TABLETS AND THAT SORT OF THING AND GET THEM ON STAGE.

TED SIMONS: BLACK NATIVITY. GIVE ME THE DATES.

DAVID HEMPHILL: DECEMBER 2ND-DECEMBER 18TH, FRIDAY, SATURDAY AND SUNDAY. SOME OF THE PERFORMANCES ARE SOLD-OUT SO IF PEOPLE ARE INTERESTED BLACKTHEATERTROUPE.ORG.

TED SIMONS: IF YOU WANT A BETTER LOOK AT WHEN WE DO THE WRITER FOR THE PIPER THERE YOU GUYS ARE.

DAVID HEMPHILL: WE ARE. WE ARE THREE YOUNG LADIES STANDING THERE SINGING ON STAGE AND THAT IS FROM OUR PRODUCTION OF BLUES IN THE NIGHT.

TED SIMONS: GOOD TO HAVE YOU AND THANK YOU FOR JOINING US.

DAVID HEMPHILL: THANK YOU VERY MUCH. I APPRECIATE IT.

David Hemphill, Director, "Black Nativity"

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