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Duke Ellington School Celebrates Co-Founder

Mike Malone Remembered as Students, Staff Perform 'Black Nativity'

Stacy M. Brown | 11/20/2013, 3 p.m.
The late Mike Malone’s adaptation of the celebrated gospel play “Black Nativity” opens at the Ellington Theatre on Wednesday, Dec. ...
The late Mike Malone

Rory Pullens paused as he reflected on the coalescing of the many stage productions produced at the famed Duke Ellington School of the Arts.

However, the reverence in the voice of the school’s CEO could easily be discerned when he talked about the late Mike Malone’s adaptation of the celebrated gospel play “Black Nativity” which opens at the Ellington Theatre on Wednesday, Dec. 4, at 7:30 p.m.

“Ellington is known as a family and when family work together as a team to accomplish these kinds of goals and objectives, such as putting on ‘Black Nativity,’ there is such a larger satisfaction,” said Pullens, 56.

The presentation of, “Black Nativity,” certainly counts as a special family affair, because it honors the work of Malone, who along with arts patron Peggy Cooper Cafritz, founded the school, located in Northwest, in 1974.

“Mike Malone touched many lives and he is my mentor and we all thought it would be a good time to commemorate our founder with his play,” said Katherine Smith, the co-director of the school’s production of “Black Nativity,” and Ellington’s director of Vision Contemporary Dance Ensemble.

Smith worked closely on several stage productions with Malone, a choreographer, director and teacher, who inspired a generation of artists and performers.

“It’s been a challenge, a good challenge that has also provided our students a chance to be included in pre-production and pre-performance activities while giving them pre-professional training,” said Smith, who has worked with such noted choreographers as James Truitte, Talley Beatty, Donald McKayle, and Milton Myers.

Malone, who died in 2006 at the age of 63, staged “Black Nativity,” in theaters around the world, including Paris, Hong Kong, New York, and Ohio. The production has become a holiday tradition in many locations, especially in Washington, D.C.

The director proclaimed the play to be a testament to the power of gospel music which tells the story of the Nativity through a combination of African-American scripture, poetry, dance and song.

Originally written by poet, playwright and social activist Langston Hughes, the play debuted on Broadway in 1961 as one of the first productions by a black playwright. “Black Nativity” opens with a cast member quoting the Bible and recounting the story of the birth of Jesus Christ, from the perspective of African Americans.

Barefoot singers in white robes with candles in hand, take center stage, belting out, “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” a classic Negro spiritual.

To emphasize Jesus’ mother Mary’s labor pains, musicians beat on African drums, which previous theater-goers to the show said resonated throughout the auditorium, making the experience authentic.

“I’m extremely excited about this,” said Tracie Jenkins, the play’s co-director and a former Theater student of Malone’s who attended Duke Ellington, some 20 years ago.

“It’s an honor to present the work of our mentor, the man who trained and molded us. You can see his influence when you’re in that room. You see it coming forward through the children,” Jenkins said.

A former professor and coordinator of the Musical Theatre program at Howard University in Northwest, Malone also served as guest director for productions at the Karamu House Theatre in Cleveland, Ohio.