Black Nativity

As the doors were shut in her face again and again, the virgin Mary searched desperately for a warm place to bring her beloved child into the world. A blackbox theater is darker and quieter than most mangers – smells less like sheep, too – but fortunately the one at H Street Playhouse proves itself once again to be a bright, welcoming space, thanks to the fervent efforts these twelve singers and performers bring to Black Nativity.

Under another year of the capable direction (and singing talent) of Stephawn Stephens, the show deftly coaxes its viewers and listeners into the communal fold. By blurring the boundaries between ancient ritual and contemporary traditions of worship, the cast succeeds in building Mary and Joseph a home for the holidays.

Written by Langston Hughes, Black Nativity was first produced Off-Broadway in 1961. Under Hughes’ pen, the piece is part reenactment of the birth of Jesus, part church service, and part Christmas concert, composed entirely of gospel versions of traditional carols mixed with a few original tunes as well.

(l-r) Nova Tate, Buttercup Johnson, Sherice Johnson, Iyona Blake (Photo: Michael Pinnix)

“Gospel” is an Old English word that means “good news.” And this year’s round of Black Nativity means good news for Theater Alliance. Backed by a three-piece band (led by music director Michael Terry), the singers stream together old favorites like “Joy To The World” and “O Come All Ye Faithful” with such flow and vitality that there’s nary a minute for the enthusiasm to cool. It’s an incubator of goodwill, as wholesome and healthful as any Christmas show you’ll find.

A marathon of happy like this requires undying exuberance, and the energy never wanes. Admittedly, though, it causes a few problems in performance. It’s great that everyone has strong pipes. But, angels have mercy, does it get loud in there. The ensemble is singing to a space the size of a large church, and despite the high quality of the voices – especially those lovely high, fluttering melodic warbles – the group needs to adjust to the small space. More than once, several lines of text are lost completely under the wave of sound. If the group can calibrate correctly, it won’t be a compromise. Instead, we’ll be able to understand more fully the inherent tenderness of so many of these songs, and the collective joy will feel like something brought right to us, rather than driven past us to the back walls.

The show’s nicely composed, cradled by a big, wooden haven of a set by Klyph Stanford and lit with appropriately kaleidoscopic irreverence by Dan Covey. The costumes by Linda Norton - which shift from tunics and traditional African-influenced Old Testament garb in Act One to modern dress in Act Two – pop with appealing color. And the blocking, for having so many people onstage at all times, is quite good, although there are a few lapses. Why, for example, does so much of the modern dance choreography happen behind a row of people, so that three-fourths of the dance is entirely lost to view? It draws some attention, too, to the fact that ultimately there’s probably too much free-form dancing, or at least that what’s there, although skillfully performed, hits too narrow a scale of emotions to repeat scene after scene (the choreography is by Rodni Williams, who also plays Joseph).

The half-baked moments mostly happen early on, as they’re spurred by the pageant-style storytelling in the first act. During “No Room,” as Mary and Joseph wander from door to door, the silly, prop-laden tableaux of interiors inadvertently dissipates the feelings of despair and trial in the couple’s journey. In one particularly ill-advised moment, Joseph knocks on the door of a cleaner named Mr. Wong, who emerges in full Oriental caricature, mispronouncing his lines from behind thick-rimmed Mr. Yunioshi glasses. Ouch. Isn’t it 2010? True, Black Nativity first reached viewers in the same year as “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, but even Mickey Rooney would blush if he saw this.

But, as everyone knows, it’s all about the music. And as the show switches gears and becomes more overly a religious service, it becomes a darn good one. The evening is less a theatrical embodiment than it is a musical means of worship, paying respect to community, history, and ritual by demanding engagement in the present moment with the people around you. Surprise, theatregoers: it’s church, which – like most art – means to key us in to what’s larger than ourselves.

All ye faithful – and, hey, everyone else too – ought to come hear the news, no matter how you choose to seek peace this holiday season.

Black Nativity

Written by Langston Hughes
Directed by Stephawn Stephens
Produced by Theater Alliance
Reviewed by Hunter Styles

Black Nativity runs thru Jan 2, 2011 at H Street Playhouse, 1365 H Street NE, Washington, DC.
Details here.
Buy tickets.

Comments

  1. This is an excellent show that often gets overlooked by the mainstream media.  Everyone should see it!

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