Last summer, Insider promised to keep you updated on the growth of a nascent theater troupe in West Louisville. At the time, Youth Repertory Theater Troupe of Louisville was in the process of mounting its first production, the hit musical “The Wiz.”
That production sold out every show and allowed the group to move forward. This month, the troupe is reaching into the African-American theatrical canon and pulling out a Christmas classic, Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity.”
Insider caught up with the group’s director, Erica Denice Bledsaw, to talk about the show and the impact success has had on her young charges.
“It’s an amazing experience,” she says. “The kids are still talking about ‘The Wiz.’ They found a sense of community, they found their friends in this troupe. They are overwhelmed with the response of the community.”
She recounts an experience one of the children had after that first show. “He said he was in the grocery store one day and somebody noticed him from ‘The Wiz,’ and he felt so special. He was, like, ‘I’m famous now, Ms. Erica, I’m famous.”
The troubles of “the youth” have made headlines in Louisville and around the country for decades, and frequently the response of social- and civic-minded folks is that kids need something to do. The Youth Repertory, an offshoot of after-school programs at the Louisville Central Community Center (LCCC), is offered free of charge. All they have to do is show up.
The Russell neighborhood where LCCC is located has been in the news this week, as it just received a $29.5 million federal grant from HUD to help transform the economically challenged neighborhood. The growth of LCCC, which opened a sprawling new building at the corner of 13th and Muhammad Ali earlier this year, represents homegrown efforts by the city and business people to help.
Bledsaw says her kids come from a mix of different social and economic backgrounds.
“The kids that participate, this is what they wanna do, they know they wanna perform, but because of where we are and where we’re located, I open it up to everybody,” she explains. “And I have half who actually live in the Russell neighborhood.”
Despite varied backgrounds, the kids are bonding. Bledsaw recalls an incident that exemplifies those bonds: “One child in particular that’s in the show was concerned she wasn’t gonna have any family in the audience … but because they are so tight and they’ve become friends as a cast, I don’t think she feels as alone.”
“Black Nativity” was first produced by Hughes in 1961 and has had a robust life with productions around the country. Bledsaw says there were multiple reasons she chose this show as the second outing for her fledgling group.
“Well, I had the honor of being in ‘Black Nativity’ with the UofL African-American Theatre Program,” she says. “That was one of my first shows I did. The experience for me was so life changing.”
In addition to her personal affection for the show, Bledsaw says the script allows directors a chance to tailor the production to their company. “(Hughes) actually set the script up in a way that the director or the producer could basically have free rein in how they wanted to present it,” she explains. “There’s no staging in the script — he doesn’t give you an outline of where to go.”
The first act presents the nativity and culminates with the birth of Jesus Christ. While non-white depictions of Jesus are still in the minority, the sheer audacity of Hughes putting an all-black nativity on stage in 1961 is pretty amazing.
The show features traditional spirituals in the first act but allows producers to make substitutions.
“I used a couple of the traditional spirituals, but I also incorporated some modern contemporary gospel songs as well,” says Bledsaw.
The second act is set in a contemporary church service. “That gives you the presence of Jesus, in modern-day 2016,” she adds.
Bledsaw says being a part of this program is inspiring.
“It’s always mind-blowing for me, just to see the magic of theater unfold,” she says. “And the kids, every day they give me life because of how talented they are, and because I’m in a position to be able to give them an outlet to do what it is they love.”
“Black Nativity” runs Friday and Saturday, Dec. 17-18 at 7 p.m., with an additional 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday. Tickets are $10 in advance or $15 at the door and can be reserved by calling 583-8821. All performances are being held at the LCCC, located at 1300 W. Muhammad Ali Blvd.
Tickets for “The Wiz” sold out quickly, so don’t sleep on “Black Nativity,” or you might get left out in the cold.