In a season of well-worn holiday traditions, nothing brings a more welcome blast of fresh good will than the image of Baby Jesus being lovingly serenaded by powerful gospel music and surrounded with luscious Afro-Caribbean trappings. Theater Alliance’s spirited production of Black Nativity takes the audience on a joyful, unique ride through the Christmas Story, set to a foot stomping gospel hit parade.
The production unfolds as a vibrant Passion Play relating the story of Jesus Christ’s birth moved to a vaguely Caribbean setting. The act begins with Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem and continues through the revelry and celebration following the news of the “newborn king”. The cast bursts out of the gate smiling and full of energy.
The emotional “No Room at the Inn” stands out from a first act bursting with quality performances. Narrated by the room filling belt of LaSharon “Buttercup” Johnson, the song follows Joseph’s frantic search for shelter for Mary and his unborn son. Shop owner after shop owner turns Joseph away in entertaining fashion, and none more dramatically than Elton L. Pittman Jr., who gives a hilarious turn as a melodramatic hairstylist. This scene gives way to a lyrical dance number featuring Tony Thomas and Keira L. Turner, offering the audience a scintillating contrast of smooth, delicate choreography and booming gospel.
The sneaky groove of “No-Good Shepherd Boy” emerges as a close second among the act’s track listing. The likeable trio of Wendell B, Chris DeLoatch, and Elton L. Pittman play three shepherds giving each other a good natured ribbing on a lazy night in the field. Their sweet harmonies and laid back groove provide a cool counterpoint to the bright praise songs that bookend the number.
The second act, by contrast, offers up what could pass for a real gospel church service, albeit inside perhaps the most spirited, well heeled church in the country. The cast emerges dressed to the nines in an array of brilliant hues, courtesy of costume designer Levonne Lindsay. They each rotate through the spotlight, holding forth about worship, God’s love, and the many reasons to be thankful as the year draws to a close.
The act features a Christmas wish list of songs from the gospel canon, including keen recreations of memorable performances by the great Mahalia Jackson and the Blind Boys of Alabama.
In “Praying Spirit”, bright suits of scarlet, teal, and royal purple paint an arresting backdrop for the number’s rich three part harmonies. In the emotional finale, “Jesus Christ is the Way”, standout performer Rafealito Ross showcases his sparkling tenor. His song of praise builds to a powerful crescendo as more cast members add their own voices and threaten to shake the theater upon its foundation.
The second act features consistently strong vocals, spirited movement, and personality to spare, but it operates for so long at such a high energy level that the numbers occasionally blend together. A more balanced rhythm of peaks and valleys might enhance the emotional effect of each successive song, even if that idea is anathema to gospel enthusiasts and traditionalists alike. This is perhaps a critique directed more toward Langston Hughes’ original composition than the vision of Music Director Michael Terry, as any music director might be hard pressed to alter the fundamental lineup of such a beloved show.
As the show wore on, some of the cast were visibly moved to tears, either by the music, the act of praising God, or simply the massive exertion of emotional energy over the course of two acts. Or perhaps, they were just playing a role. Regardless of the correct interpretation, it’s nothing short of inspiring to experience the kind of emotion that bursts from Black Nativity‘s every seam. I personally emerged exhausted and smiling, merely from bearing witness. While it might be difficult to process every burst of color and music exploding from the stage, it’s impossible not to feel uplifted and empowered by the vibrant spectacle.
Theater Alliance’s production of Black Nativity runs thru Jan 1, 2012 at H Street Playhouse, 1365 H Street, NE, Washington, DC.
By Langston Hughes
Directed by Stephawn Stephens
Musical Direction by Michael Terry
Choreography by Tony Thomas
Produced by Theater Alliance
Reviewed by Ben Demers
Runtime: Approximately 2 hours with 1 intermission