‘Black Nativity’—30 years of Black excellence


In a festive celebration at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center on Thursday evening, Dec. 13, about 100 people gathered for a reception commemorating 30 years of the Shona Sharif African Dance and Drumming Ensemble “Black Nativity.” This event was a precursor to the annual holiday run of the rousing musical “Black Nativity.” The musical for 2023 ran from Dec. 15-23 at the Stephen Foster Memorial Theater in Oakland. 

The production was first started by the Wilkinsburg Arts Council. In the second year, it was choreographed by Shona Sharif, who was a senior lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh, an African Dance instructor and the creator of the Shona Sharif African Dance and Drumming Ensemble. The third year is when she completely took over the musical and produced it until her untimely death in 1999.

The evolution of the “Black Nativity” has happened in a variety of ways, going from a one week run in the early days, to two weekends to three weekends.

In this, its 30th year in 2023, Maurice Redwood, a seasoned participant in the production, having started out as a drummer at age 15, was named the director of this season’s production. It was his directorial debut in a stage production.

“I had the time in with ‘Black Nativity’ which gave me the ability to cultivate my vision while holding onto the original pieces of the show,” Redwood told the New Pittsburgh Courier. “It was a definite plus factor being surrounded by so many other previous performers, making it a true family environment, with everyone committed to an outstanding final product. I am honored to step into this role, and that Oronde (Sharif) trusts the vision I have tried to bring to this historical production. I have always seen the musical as an experience from the African American perspective of the story of the birth of Christ and how that story still impacts us today. It is a magical and powerful piece and one of the best holiday productions in the city today—it is essentially the only Black holiday production in this city.”

“Black Nativity” has been described in a variety of ways. Karla Payne, a member of the cast for over 24 years, said the Pittsburgh production is unique. “Shona was very deliberate in infusing our African culture and experience in this story. We are one of the few companies who keep the authentic African aspect of it; we start with a drum call, it is very Afro-centric even when we move into Act 2, we keep that thread of the African culture with fabrics and head wraps, keeping it very grounded in our culture and history as African people.”

The Black Nativity’s original script was written by Langston Hughes.

Jonathan Berry, who is also a seasoned performer in the production, joining the cast at the behest of a colleague from the Kuntu Theatre 28 years ago, told the Courier: “The ‘Black Nativity’ is ministry; it is an enrichment, enriching both the audience and the actors. As actor it gave me the opportunity to really explore character-building and it freely explored developing those characters.”

Berry described the production as a “Christmas holiday production that deals with the birth of Christ in the first act, and the second act is a modern-day gospel church, Pentecostal, Baptist—including old school and new school worship songs testimony and words from a pastor,” which is usually played by Berry.

Following the unfortunate death of Shona Sharif in 1999, the event would continue. Her son, Oronde, then a 27-year-old, who had been brought in by the University of Pittsburgh to cover his mother’s classes when she grew ill, and was a student himself, stepped up and took over presenting “Black Nativity” and has carried out her vision ever since.

In an exclusive interview with the Courier, Oronde Sharif said: “I only began dancing with my mother when I was 20 years old, and when we first did the show it only had one act, which is the depiction of the birth of Christ to music and drum. I didn’t understand it all then, but as young dancers, we could not wait to do the show again the next year; we did Acts 1 and 2. There were only about eight women dancers, four or five guy dancers, two regular drummers and some guest drummers and kids from the Kumba workshop…these participants made it all very dynamic. Of course the cast has grown exponentially since then.”

“Black Nativity” is one of the few times an audience gets to see the full scope of our culture. Including traditional African Cultural, contemporary Christian non-denominational culture, different types of music and dance that are all “us,” whatever someone ascribes to it can be found on the stage. Oronde Sharif explained that this year, Maurice Redwood as the director referred to the combination as mixing old school and new school to represent every generation in the city. For every Kirk Franklin or Maverick City Music (worship group), you must have spirituals or hymns from James Cleveland and the like.

The legacy that carries this annual production is also the river that runs through it, which has kept it going over the past 30 years, and has brought performers back to the “Black Nativity” over and over again. Shona Sharif brought it to the forefront, and her sons, Oronde and Hassan, and the “super cast” and others who support them vow to keep it going.

At this year’s final show, Dec. 23, Oronde and Hassan received proclamations from the City of Pittsburgh, establishing December 23, 2023 as “Shona Sharif African Drum and Dance Ensemble Black Nativity Day” in the City of Pittsburgh.




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