Student Stars in Holiday Musical Film, Black Nativity

Professional music major Grace Gibson learns how to balance her studies with one in the professional world as she takes on her first movie role.

November 21, 2013

Grace Gibson was in Armsted Christian’s Flo’Ology class when she got a call from the head of casting at Fox about negotiating a deal for a role in the film Black Nativity, a part she’d auditioned for before coming to Berklee.

The movie, which opens in theaters on Thanksgiving eve, is a contemporary adaptation of Langston Hughes’s play, which is in itself a reimagining of the nativity story featuring an all-black cast and gospel-style Christmas carols. Directed by Kasi Lemmons, the film tells the story of a teenager named Langston from Baltimore who heads to New York City to spend Christmas with his grandparents after he and his mother are evicted from their apartment.

Read a Boston Globe story about Gibson's role in Black Nativity

Not unlike the dual responsibilities she has had to manage as a college student and a professional actress, Gibson plays two roles in the film: Maria, a pregnant teenager living in Harlem who sings Christmas carols for money, and the first character Langston encounters; and the Virgin Mary, who appears to Langston in dream sequences that tell the nativity story.

For Gibson, the film also fuses her early love and study of dance with her current dedication to music. In addition to singing and playing guitar, she performs a dance scene, which appears in the director’s cut.

But straddling the worlds of college and the movie industry was not without its challenges for Gibson, who had to put her Berklee education on hold for one semester. Coming back, however, she feels more focused than ever, thanks to the lessons she learned on the set.

“I’ve always had this dream of being in school and being a professional. Now I see leaving and coming back gives me a perspective on both.”

“I thought, ‘I have more to learn.’ Coming back here has been very humbling. I’m humbled to the art of learning itself,” she says, pointing to the example of how studying acting with Rebecca Perricone resonates even more now. “Coming back here, the learning hasn’t stopped. The learning never stops.”

While on the set, Gibson used the tools she had garnered so far at Berklee, and through her previous studies at Barnard College and Alvin Ailey.

“I was given songs I had to learn, like I was given songs to learn in Jetro Da Silva’s Divas Ensemble; I had to play guitar and record with (the film’s executive music director) Raphael Saadiq, so I had to use things George Russell Jr. taught me in harmony class; and I had to sing with Jennifer Hudson and used lessons Donna McElroy taught me in our voice lessons. It made me a better actress.” In addition, she credits maintaining a positive outlook to a lot of the philosophy she learned in Teodros Kiros’s class.

In addition, she’s seen firsthand the realities of professional multitasking.

“These roles aren’t necessarily going to wait for you,” she says of the opportunity to be part of Black Nativity, noting that even while back at Berklee, she’s still had to make time for publicity amid her studies. “For me, it was further training in how to multitask because I’m going to have to do that for my whole life.”

An Academic Foundation

Growing up, Gibson was no stranger to Hollywood. In fact, her parents met on the set of the HBO biopic The Josephine Baker Story, in which her mother, Lynn Whitfield, played the lead role (for which she won an Emmy) and her late father, Brian Gibson, directed.

But while giving her a glimpse into the industry, Gibson’s parents also instilled in her the importance of education. Keeping that focus, she auditioned for roles over the years before landing her first one in Black Nativity.

For this role, it was especially meaningful for Gibson to get the chance to work with Lemmons, a longtime mentor and family friend who saw Gibson as a natural fit for the project from the outset. Gibson helped Lemmons with the pitch video, enlisting her friend Taylor Gordon—a senior at Berklee while Gibson was a student in the Five-Week Summer Performance Program—to do an arrangement of “Silent Night.” For the film, Saadiq put his touch on Gordon’s arrangement.

Gibson caught Fox’s attention with the pitch video, and she auditioned several times. In the meantime, she had left Barnard and spent six months working in France, and then enrolled at Berklee full-time. Fast forward one year to when Gibson took that call in Christian’s Flo’Ology class.

Still, that message of continuing her education was emphasized on the set by fellow actors Forest Whittaker and Angela Bassett. Gibson heeded that and is back at Berklee with a new appreciation for the opportunities the college is giving her.

“I’m a musician. Film happened and that’s great and I’m so excited to see what comes of it, but music is my heart. I’m working on my music, working on getting my chops up,” she says.

The way she sees it, augmenting this already strong foundation will only serve to make her a better at whatever professional avenues she explores.

Margot Edwards contributed to this story.