A Little Girl and “The Nativity”

by Leslye “Joy” Allen                                                                                                        Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate & Consultant, Doctoral Student

Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

For the record, I am a historian and contrary to popular belief, historians are not social scientists.  History belongs in the category of the Humanities, as in the phrase “Arts and Humanities.”  Art and artists tell stories and so do historians.  We just do it in different ways.

Historians analyze and interpret the past.  We ask “why” something happened and we ask “how” something happened.

There are as many different angles and answers to those “how” and “why” questions as there are historians.  Performance art also does this because no two performances are ever the same; and audience members often see and interpret the same story or song in a hundred different ways.

Yet, I digress.

What I really want to share is a particular story, a story about a little girl who sat in an audience and gave me the best lesson about what the arts, particularly theatre, does for an audience.

I have always been fond of Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity. Many theatre companies in Atlanta have performed this holiday classic over many decades.

I recall seeing many performances of it by Jomandi Productions and many other local Black theatre companies. In recent years, many directors and playwrights have produced their own version of the “Nativity.”

There was yet another re-imagining of this annual story conceived, written, and choreographed by Patdro Harris as part of Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company’s annual Christmas offering that played in December of 2011 at the beautiful Southwest Arts Center.

Yet, a couple of years ago, I witnessed Black Nativity for perhaps the eighth or ninth time.  This time, however, I sat behind a little girl who could not have been any older than five or six years old.  I watched her and nostalgically recalled that my first theatre experience occurred on a visit to New York when I was four and a half years old—I saw Sammy Davis, Jr. in Golden Boy.  However, the little girl watching Black Nativity did more than bring up fond childhood memories for me.

Sitting in the dark at the Southwest Arts Center, preparing myself for True Colors Theatre Company’s version of Black Nativity, I watched this child’s face break out in a wide—missing-tooth—grin as the music, dance, and dialogue began.

She watched the show with wonder, that kind of childhood wonder where everything is brand new.  After the show was over, while I chatted with some folks in the lobby, I watched and heard this child make a dozen comments and ask nearly as many questions:

“Mama, I sure did have a good time.”

“Mama, was the baby Jesus a real baby or was it a doll?”

“Mama what do actors do to make themselves look old?”  “

What does “nativity” mean?

How can the same person pretend to be two different people?

The questions and comments from this child kept coming.  Yet that is what the arts do—art always triggers the imagination.  So I often wonder why some legislators do not realize that part of the reason why schools have difficulty raising students’ Math and Science scores is partially due to the fact that there has been a systematic de-emphasis and de-funding of the Arts and the Humanities.

Being able to memorize and regurgitate information is not a clear example of scholastic aptitude; being able to creatively think one’s way through or out of a problem is an explicit illustration of genuine intelligence.  If you think Albert Einstein created his theory of relativity based only on what his science and math teachers taught him, you are dead wrong.

“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination,” Einstein said.

If you think George Washington Carver did not understand the importance of creativity, think again.  Carver emphasized that, “Since new developments are the products of a creative mind, we must therefore stimulate and encourage that type of mind in every way possible.”  It is not likely Einstein or Carver would have become the geniuses that they were without a genuine respect for the arts.

That little girl I listened to asking questions in the lobby of the Southwest Arts Center would never have asked the kind of questions she asked her mother had her mother decided not to take her to see a play or a musical.

Black Nativity had stoked her young imagination.  When you stoke children’s imaginations, they ask intelligent questions; and when this kind of inquisitiveness is encouraged, they tend to grow up to be adults who ask intelligent questions.  When you have adults who know the right questions to ask, you tend to get a community that will demand and possibly get better public policy on everything from city services to health care to education.

So, do your community, yourself, and your children one favor.  Take yourself, your children or a child to see a play, a Jazz concert, a ballet, and/or an art exhibit.  Now there is no guarantee that you or any child that you expose to the arts will become the next Einstein or Carver, or even a great performance artist.  Yet, why not give them a shot at being any or all of the above.


Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

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