When Congo Square Theater Company opens The Nativity at the Goodman’s Owen Theatre on December 2, audiences will see a production quite changed from any the company has offered before. Congo Square’s Nativity has been a moving target throughout its seven-year history, beginning with the Langston Hughes Black Nativity and then commissioning Chicago playwright McKinley Johnson to develop a one-act adaptation especially for the company. And now comes a new slant on that version of the show.In addition to being the first Congo Square Nativity directed by a woman (Ilesa Duncan, producing artistic director of the dormant Pegasus Players), this year’s production will feature a woman, Alexis Rogers as the Angel Gabriel. (Rogers played Bess in last season’s lauded Porgy & Bess at Court Theatre, and thus is no stranger to theatrical reinvention.) What accounts for this unconventional choice?
“Our season is honoring the black woman,” explains Artistic Director Daniel Bryant. “So everything we’re doing this year is female-focused. We know that typically male energy dominates in the Bible, but with a female director we’re really seeing the play from a female perspective.”
He admits the possibility that some people might be offended by the non-traditional casting of a Biblical figure. But, he says, “As Artistic Director I thought the concept was exciting–and angels are ethereal beings, anyway. Who’s to assign gender to something that’s not human? Putting a woman in that role doesn’t alter the story in religious terms. And as people begin to get curious about the change we have a woman minister who’s agreed to host a talkback about women in the Bible. It should be if nothing else a conversation-starter.”
Bryant stresses that Congo Square isn’t interested in controversy for controversy’s sake. “The purpose of The Nativity is to honor the spirit of the holiday, around a Biblical story that a lot of people hold in high esteem. In the spirit of our [season] theme we just want to go all out–-honoring the holiday and the female, as a woman and an artist. We’re not trying to kick up dust.”
While Congo Square has had some venue-related upheaval this year—a change of ownership robbed the company of its home at the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts with no notice—Nativity was always scheduled to take place at the Goodman, where it complements A Christmas Carol in the Albert. For the remaining two shows of its season, Congo Square will perform at Stage 773. But for now the company is tightly focused on its evolving Nativity.
“This is the ultimate in re-tooling,” says Bryant. “We’ll have new music, a mostly brand-new cast. Whoever saw it last year is guaranteed a new show.”