In ‘Mary, A Holiday Dansical’ Black Girls Dance reimagines Langston Hughes classic for the season

Told from the perspective of a teenage girl, “Mary” offers a contemporary spin on the nativity story and delivers a message of empowerment.

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Erin Barnett, founder and director of the Black Girls Dance Ensemble is photographed in one of the dance studios at the Mayfair Arts Center as her dancers rehearse their upcoming presentation “Mary A Holiday Dansical.”

Erin Barnett, founder and director of the Black Girls Dance Ensemble, rehearses the company for their holiday production of “Mary, A Holiday Dansical.”

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

No dance work is more associated with the holiday season than “The Nutcracker,” which is featured annually in multiple productions around Chicago, including a high-profile one presented by the Joffrey Ballet.

Such ubiquitousness is exactly why Erin Barnett decided to write, choreograph and direct “Mary, A Holiday Dansical.” The 90-minute show returns Dec. 18 to the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts, where it debuted last year under the auspices of Black Girls Dance, a dance school in South Chicago.

Black Girls Dance

Black Girls Dance: ‘Mary, A Holiday Dansical’

When: 7 p.m. Dec. 18

Where: Performance Hall, Logan Center for the Arts, University of Chicago, 915 E. 60th

Tickets: $40

Info: blackgirlsdance.org

“Some people are ‘Nutcracker’-ed out and I myself am one of those people,” said Barnett, who performed in a North American tour of “The Lion King” from September through November. “It’s time for something else. How many times can you see ‘The Nutcracker’?”

“Mary” is Barnett’s reimagining of poet Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity,” a 1961 musical that offered a gospel take on the biblical nativity story. As a student at Howard University, Barnett took part in a 1996 and ‘97 revival at the Kennedy Center that was choreographed and directed by Mike Malone.

“I remember having wonderful feelings and memories with the singers and dancers that were in the cast,” she said. “I always thought that I would like to do my own version of ‘Black Nativity.’”

Ava Brown (front), who stars as one of the Three Queens, rehearses with the company of the Black Girls Dance Ensemble’s production of “Mary, A Holiday Dansical.”

Ava Brown (front), who stars as one of the Three Queens, rehearses with the Black Girls Dance Ensemble company for their production of “Mary, A Holiday Dansical.”

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Told from the perspective of a teenage girl, “Mary” offers a contemporary spin on the nativity story and delivers a message of empowerment. As its subtitle suggests, it is not a traditional musical. The narrative unfolds primarily through dance performed to a recorded soundtrack of holiday favorites like Whitney Houston’s “Joy to the World” and Buddy Greene’s “Mary, Did You Know?”

In 2015, Barnett, a Chicago native who has danced with such nationally known companies as Garth Fagan Dance and Philadanco!, founded Black Girls Dance, a dance school that now has 125 students ages 3-18.

She faced what she called the “micro-aggressions of racism” when she studied ballet as a child, and that memory stuck with her. She recalls thinking: “If I ever got to do something about it in my adult life, I would make sure that there was a space for girls of color to train without that pressure, a place where they could relate to their teachers and a place where they could experience a supportive community.”

As the daughter of a single mother who had to work three jobs in part to pay for her dance tuition, Barnett also wanted to address some of the financial inequities facing dance students of color by providing scholarships and other support where possible.

Black Girls Dance started in a church basement, which it quickly outgrew, and is now based at the Mayfair Arts Center, 8701 S. Bennett. It offers classes in ballet, hip hop, tap and contemporary dance, all of which are featured in “Mary.”

Meika Haywood (front) rehearses with the company of “Mary, A Holiday Dansical.” 

Meika Haywood (front) rehearses with the rest of the company of “Mary, A Holiday Dansical.”

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The production, one of two the school sponsors each year, features 17 dancers, including two professionals — Erica Wade as Prophet Tina, Mary’s mother, and Mekeba Malik, a member of the Deeply Rooted Dance Theater, as Joseph. The rest of the cast is filled by dance students, most from Black Girls Dance but also some from the Chicago High School for the Arts and Asia’s Dance Factory in Gary, Indiana.

Starring in the title role is Meika Haywood, a senior at Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy. “I’ve known her since she was like 8 years old,” Barnett said, “and just watched her develop into a responsible, beautiful dancer and young woman. She’s a powerhouse on stage, and I’m so confident in her ability and talent.”

Erin Barnett directs the company in rehearsal for “Mary, A Holiday Dansical.” 

Erin Barnett directs the company in rehearsal for “Mary, A Holiday Dansical.”

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Dance has been a central part of Haywood’s life since she was 3, and the young artist is contemplating a career in the field. “I like the behind-the-scenes part of it,” she said, “so I could see myself being a dance director or a teacher of some sort.”

Haywood performed another character in “Mary” last year and simultaneously understudied the lead role. “I’m super, super excited,” she said. “I think it’s going to be a great show. And it’s a beautiful story to tell, and it’s good for children of this generation, because they can relate to it better from this perspective.”

Barnett hopes that “Mary,” back for its second year, becomes an on-going holiday tradition in Chicago. “It just offers a different alternative,” she said, “if families are looking for something outside Clara and ‘The Nutcracker.’”

The Black Girls Dance company rehearses rehearsal for “Mary, A Holiday Dansical.” 

The Black Girls Dance company rehearses rehearsal for “Mary, A Holiday Dansical.”

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times


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