“Preach the Gospel,” St. Francis of Assisi is reputed to have said. “If necessary, use words.”
There are plenty of words in Wasn’t that a Mighty Day?, now at the Anacostia Playhouse, but they aren’t the point. The business of this production, and of gospel music in general, is to show the otherworldly power of the Almighty as it passes through His galvanized human instruments, leaving them in a dazed bliss, scoured and succored by His message.
What message is this? In sum, that we are eternal creatures, and that the miseries we experience now, heartbreaking though they seem, are tiny, trivial moments compared to the unimaginable joy which will continue to be ours long after the Sun cools, and the universe surrenders to entropy.
This is too much to say in a play in words, so the production uses music – some of it wonderfully beautiful, and all of it designed to show off the fulsome talents of this excellent cast. The production features Signature Theatre’s signature belter Nova Y. Payton as the narrator, but it is a measure of the quality of the show that hers is not the most remarkable voice on stage. That distinction – not disputed, but hotly contested – belongs to Sherice Payne, an ensemble player who is featured when the Three Wise Women set out on their trek to give witness to the birth of the Christ. Payne, a veteran Gospel singer who has recently completed a tour backing up Josh Groban, displays astonishing, operatic power and range on “We Saw the Sign” and “Go Forth”; the work of the Wise Women (Shante M. Moore and Daphne Epps are the other two) is probably the high point of the production.
Book writer/director Raquis Petree puts the story of the birth of Jesus in a frame: the church is putting on its annual Nativity Play, and the director (Payton) is recruiting her cast.
The community is going through hard times; there are layoffs at the local businesses, and those who haven’t lost their jobs must work the shifts of those who have. Their everyday burdens, coupled with the usual problems of ego, hostility and jealousy, make them reluctant to put on the cheaply-made costumes and drab props in the church basement and stage another Nativity play. Once they decide to go forward, however, the power of the Christmas message assets itself over pain and despair, and, like the everyday people of Israel two thousand years ago (who suffered even worse poverty and misery) they stumble into, and redeem themselves by, a message of eternal joy.
Once the church members begin to recreate the Nativity play, the external world falls away, and we see into the heart of a Christian mystery through the eyes of contemporary working people. Occasionally Petree drags us back into the present, using A. De’Wright Snowden as an antic, self-aggrandizing church member who plays an antic, self-aggrandizing Angel Gabriel. The actor’s signature move – telling his fellow-actors and the audience to “wait for it” as the blue LED lights in his halo switch on in patterns – is funny the first time he does it.
Aside from this diversion, though, Petree pretty much gives us the experience of a church nativity play. The acting is not always of the greatest – some of the folks here are singers rather than actors – but we wouldn’t expect them to be in a church play. Once we get away from the frame, the story is an extremely familiar one, even to non-Christians. One part of the story which might not be familiar is the tale of Zacharias (Dion L. Davis), who refused to believe that his barren wife Elizabeth (Thomascena Nelson) was pregnant with the child who would eventually become John the Baptist. God punished his skepticism by making him mute – a story which Patree unfortunately elects to tell through a game show, hosted by Gabriel.
Wasn’t That a Mighty Day?
Closes January 5, 2014
2020 Shannon Place SE
1 hour, 30 minutes, no intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
But once we are in the story of the Nativity itself, things sizzle. This is not the birth of the Christ for theologians or intellectuals, but for ordinary people like you and me, who need to experience the story on a personal level. Thus when Joseph (the excellent Marty Lamar) tries to find a place for Mary and himself to bed down for the night by knocking on doors, one frightened homeowner comes out holding a baseball bat, while another mutters to her friend on a cell phone. Finally, when a compassionate innkeeper (Robert E. Person) sees Joseph and the overwhelmingly pregnant Mary (Jessika Doby) cold and exhausted in the night, he says “we can’t have that!” and takes them inside. “It’s not much,” he adds, leading them to the manger.
I recommend sitting close to the front, so that you can distinguish the extraordinary individual voices in all the choral pieces. Davis – an excellent actor with a powerful stage presence – has a bass-to-tenor range. So does sixteen-year-old Christian Stewart, who may be a name to watch in Gospel circles for years to come. Nelson as Elizabeth and Doby as Mary both have clear, sweet, powerful voices. In short, the entire production achieves the Christian objective, which is to be surprised by joy. The narrative occasionally spins its wheels, but that’s okay. It’s not about the words.
Note: The music and lyrics are attributed to Marion Johnson and Daniel Spruill. However, at least one song, “Mary Did You Know,” was written by Mark Lowry (lyrics) and Buddy Greene (music), and it appears that the lyrics to a second song, “Who Would Imagine a King” were written by the late Whitney Houston.
Wasn’t That A Mighty Day? Written and directed by Raquis Petree . Music and lyrics by Marion Johnson and Daniel Spruill and others. Featuring Nova Y. Payton, A. De’Wight Snowden, Thomascena Nelson, Dion L. Davis, Jessika Doby, Marty Lamar, Christian Stewart, Robert E. Person, Sherice Payne, Shante M. Moore and Daphne Epps. Mr. Spruill and Ms. Johnson served as co-Musical Directors .Chorographer: Tuluv Price . Set Design: Keith Hight . Lighting Design: Lenard Reid . Costume Design: Mary Goodwyn . Alicia Perkins and Annette Gray were the prop mistresses; Chelsea Cruz provided specialty props. Wilma Lynn Horton, assisted by Akio Davis and Mitchell Youn, was the stage manager. Produced by Tree Theater Works and Anacostia Playhouse . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.