New Village Arts reopens with world premiere of ‘Black Family Christmas’ musical

Actor Kory LaQuess Pullam, left, composer John-Mark McGaha and actor/lyricist Milena (Sellers) Phillips.
Composer John-Mark McGaha, foreground, with cast members Kory LaQuess Pullam, left, and actor/lyricist Milena (Sellers) Phillips at a rehearsal for “1222 Oceanfront: A Black Family Christmas.”
(Sarah Marcella Photography)

Playwright Dea Hurston wanted to tell a Christmas story from a rarely seen perspective


This month, more than a dozen Christmas-themed plays and musicals are opening at theaters around the San Diego County. They all have different themes and stories, but virtually all of them are told from a White perspective.

That changes this weekend with the world premiere of “1222 Oceanfront: A Black Family Christmas” at New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad. Commissioned in February 2020 and developed over weekly Zoom meetings and a trio of workshops in the nearly two years since, the new holiday musical by San Diego playwright Dea Hurston is a contemporary holiday story about an African American family. It’s set at the oceanfront home of family matriarch Dorothy Black, who has hosted a Christmas brunch for 30 years. This year, Dorothy upsets her son, James Jr., and their extended family by announcing this brunch will be her last, and she has found new love after 20 years of widowhood.

Actors Victor Morris, left, Milena (Sellers) Phillips, Deja Fields and Durwood Murray
Victor Morris, left, Milena (Sellers) Phillips, Deja Fields and Durwood Murray rehearse a scene from “1222 Oceanfront: A Black Family Christmas” at New Village Arts.
(Sarah Marcella Photography)

New Village Arts executive artistic director Kristianne Kurner devised the project by asking Hurston and a team of local artists of color — Frankie Alicea-Ford, Kevin “Blax” Burroughs and Milena (Sellers) Phillips — to write a musical based on their own holiday experiences. Delicia Turner Sonnenberg was hired to direct and Joy Yvonne Jones was brought in as producer. And this past spring, singer, musician and arranger John-Mark McGaha of Birmingham, Ala., was enlisted to adapt the music and serve as show music director.

McGaha is Hurston’s distant cousin — his great-great grandmother and her great-grandmother were sisters — who met her through a Facebook family page two years ago. McGaha tours the country in a Stevie Wonder tribute show, and Hurston has been commissioned by the Old Globe to develop her stage comedy “I Want to Marry Stevie Wonder.” Since bonding over Wonder’s music in 2019, the cousins have been speaking by phone every week, and they met for the first time last July after he volunteered to set some of the show’s songs to music and do new arrangements for traditional carols and spirituals.

“I’m in this because I love my cousin,” McGaha said. “I love the story she’s writing. I believe in the mission she has to produce theater that teaches us to love each other and see the beauty in each other. I believe in her.”

Dea Hurston and  John-Mark McGaha rehearsing "1222 Oceanfront: A Black Family Christmas"
Playwright Dea Hurston and music director John-Mark McGaha during a recent rehearsal of “1222 Oceanfront: A Black Family Christmas” at New Village Arts.
(Michael Taylor)

McGaha, a married father of five and contemporary worship and arts director at Trinity United Methodist Church in Homewood, Ala., said what makes “1222 Oceanfront” unique is how it presents an authentic and positive representation of Black family life in America.

“Narratives attached to Black families and Black men are sometimes mispresented and can be very upsetting,” McGaha said. “What she’s done is nothing short of phenomenal. Dea’s ability to mix in authenticity, with charm and humor to address narratives involving race, culture, age, marriage, sibling rivalries and love at different phases of life will make you laugh and cry at the same time and at the same time uncomfortable and pleasantly surprised.”

Hurston said she’s grateful to Kurner for going the extra mile to ensure that every detail, including the interior of Dorothy’s home, accurately depicts true Black family life in America. She is also pleased at the chemistry between Phillips (who plays Dorothy) and Victor Morris, who plays Dorothy’s new love, Victor. And she loves McGaha’s new music and arrangements, which transform “Silent Night” into a love song and “What Child is This” into a protest song.

Hurston’s plays are known for their humor and honesty, and she said this script also touches on how a family deals with trauma — in this case, the death of Dorothy’s husband 20 years before, which she and her son never dealt with properly.

“I feel great about this show,” Hurston said. “Just to hear the cast laugh during rehearsals means the world to me. It’s been very exciting seeing this come to life.”

‘1222 Oceanfront: A Black Family Christmas’

When: Opens Saturday, Nov. 27 and runs through Dec. 26. Showtimes, 2 p.m. Wednesdays. 7:30 p.m. Thursdays. 8 p.m. Fridays. 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays. 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays.

Where: New Village Arts, 2787 State St., Carlsbad

Tickets: $20 to $59

Phone: (760) 433-3245


COVID protocols: Full vaccination required with at least 14 days from second shot, or negative COVID-19 PCR test within 72 hours of performance date. Masks required indoors for all.