Counted amongst the great legacies left by the late American literary figure, Langston Hughes, Black Nativity has been a Christmas classic since its first theatre run off-Broadway in December of 1961. The first of its kind, the historic staging of the gospel-song play was directed by trailblazing actress/playwright Vinnette Carrol, and is credited for inspiring other popular rock-gospel productions including Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell.
Over 50 years later, writer-director Kasi Lemmons is taking on the challenge of modernizing Hughes’ retelling of the nativity story, and imaging it as a blockbuster musical for the big screen. In theatres now, Lemmons Black Nativity sees Hollywood A-listers Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland), Angela Bassett (American Horror Story) and Jennifer Hudson (The Secret Life of Bees) in leading roles opposite musical giants Mary J. Blige, Tyrese and Nas, as well as newcomers, Jacob Latimore and Grace Gibson.
“I was initially so nervous — when we did the read-through, I was shaking,” shares an earnest Gibson. “These are people I have been looking up to my whole life. And then we started shooting, and I really felt so at home and like this was what I was meant to do.”
It’s hard to believe Gibson grew up in Hollywood — she’s daughter to Lynn Whitfield (The Josephine Baker Story); excited and humble when discussing her role and budding career, the 22-year-old Berklee College of Music student is not what one expects from someone who grew up with an Emmy award-winning, Golden Globe nominated actress as a mom.
Born with a natural love of music, dance and acting, Gibson’s close proximity to Hollywood growing up was more of a hurdle to her career in the arts than a boost in some ways as she shares. “I had to keep proving that I really wanted this,” she says about convincing her parents that the entertainment industry was for her.
Moving full speed ahead, Gibson’s introduction to theatre audiences in Black Nativity, sees her diving in head first into the world of blockbuster movies. Cast as the pregnant Maria, the young actress takes on the weight of Mary’s struggle in the nativity story, which in Lemmons interoperation, climaxes in a stunning rendition of “Silent Night,” sung with co-star, R&B singer Luke James and Hudson.
Below, Black Nativity star Grace Gibson takes us behind her passion for music and her first experience on the big screen.
Black Nativity is generating some great buzz. How excited were you when you first landed the role of Mary/Maria?
Oh my God, excited is not the word. Really, I was in shock. And then, I was excited, and then I was like, “I am playing the virgin Mary!”
It’s an amazing film to call your first, were you nervous at all walking on to set with all the veterans there? Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker, those are some big names.
Inevitably, I was very nervous and a bit star struck. We got to a running start though, and really once you get to the movie making and you see their personalities and how great they are as humans…I was honoured and felt like I [had been] working up to that moment and opportunity my entire life. It was really exciting to show everything I have been working on.
Did you connect with one of your co-stars in particular?
Everyone brought something so different and special to the table, that I had my little moments with everyone. Definitely Luke and I had to connect. You know, he plays my boyfriend and husband. And it wasn’t hard to search for chemistry because we have similar senses of humour…and we actually had to share a trailer. I am very close to the director Kasi, so it really felt like a warm environment and I got to know a little bit about everyone.
Your character, like everyone’s character, has a role in the original nativity story and another one that plays out in real life, right?
In “reality” I got to play this street smart girl who is basically homeless with her boyfriend [Joe Joe]. She’s pregnant and they’ve decided to keep the child (they created it together), and they are just trying to find a way to make money, so they can feed themselves and get through this period of time. And then when [Jacob Latimore’s character Langston] is sleeping, it is kind of the same character with the same attributes superimposed into the nativity story — the same sense of faith and hope in the face of darkness.
It’s a big part to step into for your first film, and you do a great job. You grew up exposed to the world of Hollywood, did it seem fairly natural that you get into the business yourself?
I always loved the arts, whether it be dance or signing or acting. I always found a bit of myself in each of those crafts. And for a long time, my parents were very supportive in me doing it as an extra curricular activity, but when it came to me wanted to do it as a career…it was a big big fight. It took years and years!
I guess maybe they were trying to protect you in some ways, no?
Having been exposed to Hollywood…it shows you the glamorous parts, but it also shows you the really grimy and hard parts. I was blessed with having a panoramic view in order to make an informed decision.
You mentioned your love of music, was the musical element of the film one of the major draws when you first received the script?
Defiently. One reason that Kasi even considered me was that she had heard me sing since I was 10-years-old. I used to always babysit her kids. We were close family friends that were always in and out of contact. Then, she heard me play guitar one day and was like, I have this role and I can’t see anyone but you playing it. So, it really was the musical element that brought it all to fruition.
Do you think you’ll ever make the move from film to Broadway? Is that a goal at all?
I would love to! I have a lot of roots in musical theatre and that is what started off my relationship with music in the first place. Broadway is a dream for me.
How was it performing with Jennifer Hudson on “Silent Night?”
It was like a spiritual experience to be honest. We shot that scene in the middle of the night, it was like 2:00 a.m. and we were shooting in Harlem, and when I tell you that Jennifer Hudson’s voice was crystal clear…it was just so nature. And it was 10 degrees outside! I was just like, “I want to know how to do that!”
I can’t believe you guys shot that at 2:00 a.m.! Did any of the vets give you some sage advice about making it in the business?
Well, Jennifer Hudson was like: “Girl, I don’t think you need to be nervous at all! Your mom is so talented and so established!” But I’m kind of like yeah…the thing is that, the pressure was never on me then. I was just hanging out on set for the free food. But now the chair has my name on it, and this is what I wanted my whole life…so it’s like, wow! When you finally get what you have been working for, it can be an overwhelming and exciting.
I can imagine. Where do you draw all that emotion from when singing in the film, do you tap into some of your own personal memories or are you completely in character?
I feel like they are kind of one in the same. Whenever I approach a character, I try and find the lines of the difference and similarities of experience and emotions that we could connect on. So when I was approaching Maria, I really woke up everyday and took a shower and washed away Grace and stepped into Maria’s body, you know? Asking: What is she feeling? What is going on around her? You don’t just necessarily take on things you have nothing to do with; you have to try and find pieces of her that you can connect to yourself. I feel it is one of the same, you know?
No, that really makes sense. You’re no doubt a triple threat, if you had to choose only one thing you could do for the rest of your career, which of the three — dancing, singing or acting — would you choose?
Honestly, I couldn’t. I think they all stem from one another and they are all my soulmates — they are all my love…they all complete me.
Come on, you really can’t pick? Please…
I mean, it all started with music. My father was really big into musicals and my mother loved music, so I just grew up in a household filled with amazing visual and audible music.
Can we expect an album from you in the future?
Any idea what it would it sounds like?
I’m still on my musical journey. I have been experimenting with so many things. I just bought my first amazing guitar — a Gibson SG — I am so excited to see where that takes me! I have been writing songs since I was 17-years-old, so you definitely hear some old and some new stuff.
.............................................. Styling by Douglas Wright Makeup & Hair: Megan Lanoux at Exclusive Artists Management using Chanel Cosmetics and Oribe Photography Assistant, Wesley Stringer Shot on location at The Summit Bar & LES in New York City ................................................Published November 30, 2013