Watching Black Nativity, the Granddaddy of gospel musicals, is like going back in time, way back to the inception of what the Christmas season is all about. Lyrics by Langston Hughes recount the conditions of the Virgin’s birth with a soulful clarity and captivating style, the music makes it soar, the glorious singing and dancing add a quickening, and to top it off, this production adds a drop-dead gorgeous baby to yank at heartstrings of even the most determined Scrooge. Oh come all ye faithful indeed.
Admittedly, the babe wrapped in swaddling clothing as the infant Messiah is a spectacle, and I’m sure his appearance depends on his mood at the time, but when he coos and allows himself to be coddled by his “foster parents” Mary and Joseph, adored by the Three Wise Men, and lifted to the shining star Kunte Kente style, well, it’s a dynamic reminder that a flesh and blood infant changed the course of mankind. Cute as a button notwithstanding, it’s a bit much to keep him up and hanging around in the second act to make the curtain call. Still, the rest of the production has quite a climb and struggle to match that level of energy and excitement, and generally it does, mainly because of a few standouts.
As Mary and Joseph, dancers Avalon Robb-Brown and Rodni Williams are exquisite and definitely worth the trip. Muscular and lean, they fit each other in temperament and style, and are simply lovely to behold. With gorgeously expressed movements and gentle lifts, both are adept in physical and even facial expressions to tell the story, as when Mary shows the weariness of her impending delivery, and Joseph desperately seeks shelter to protect her.
The rest of the cast is a virtual “who’s who” of ministers and gospel choir members from the metro area who finally get their chance to shine. The soul-stirring voices include a fantastic trio of male singers, especially Don Jones with a multi-range high octane register that will make you and even Mary weep, and an animated and gifted Pastor David North, who’s every move and expression is an invitation to worship.
The two acts in Black Nativity depict distinctly different historical periods and styles—Act one sets up the “virgin birth” with characters dressed in biblical costumes, robes and head wraps with an African flair, nicely coordinated by Wanda Lumpkins and Cynthia Rose, while Act two is modern and straight up full gospel. Director Stephawn Stephens, a gifted and dynamic actor and singer in his own right, has fun with the material, has a good sense of movement and placement for the large cast, and maintains an infectious energy throughout. The first act plays to the cast’s strength of ensemble voices, simple and fun sketches, and costumed flair. The “No Room” sequence is hysterical and highlights how the stellar band can smack down different musical styles on a dime, led by master keyboardist Derrick Anderson. The ladies have fun with “What You Gonna Name That Baby” cavorting around, scooping each other out in a chatty delivery.
As it stands, the second act demands powerhouse voices that come off as second tier. Still, the spirit rides high and carries the show, especially the showstopper entrance of the “Blind Boys of Alabama” and Pastor North who is an unstoppable force.
This production of Black Nativity covers the familiar territory with its own style. While it was a mainstay of the late and wonderful Mike Malone for years, it’s comforting to see that others will pick up the mantle and tell the glorious story. And it’s nice to experience the show in a small, intimate venue again, bringing the gospel message home with charm and appeal, including a squealing delightful Baby Jesus.
Based on text by Langston Hughes
Directed by Stephawn Stephens
Produced by Theater Alliance
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Brad Hathaway . Potomac Stages