Having seen numerous renditions of Black Nativity over the years, I didn’t rush to Theater Alliance last year despite hearing how fabulous it was and ended up missing it. When it swept the Helen Hayes nominations and awards this year, I was thrilled to get a chance to see for myself what the buzz was all about. It’s terrific!
The original designers, dynamic duo e’Marcus Harper-Short and Eric Ruffin, bring an upbeat flair that’s hard to beat. The new arrangements of gospel staples add a poignancy that you feel at your core. That’s the beauty of the show— even the smallest tweak can evoke new and different reactions for a whole new experience, making it worthwhile to catch this version filled with joyful energy and excitement.
The “gospel song play” by Langston Hughes tells the Christmas story in the first Act through song and dance but with creative staging to highlight the glorious nuances—the couple being turned away at the time of their deepest need, the role of shepherds who expect Nothing like the glory they’re about to witness.
Some original cast members have returned, and the new ones have matched the quality and amazing caliber of the award-winning performers. For example, the youthful energy and soulful expressions of Whitney Hutcherson and Darin Turner, as Mary and Joseph, add a strong dramatic component that’s rooted in the gospel story. They can also dance up a storm (great choreography by Princess Mhoon.)
There are striking shifts in perspective where director Eric Ruffin skillfully transitions from the exuberance of an African celebration to a slave cargo ship, complete with sounds of splashing waves and the actors arms outstretched as if in chains. It’s a riveting recognition of the bondage steeped in the African American experience, and the solace from the gospel story to survive.
Act 2 brings everyone into the fold as part of the church congregation with musical selections so strong that the spirit will surely sweep you up before the end of the show.
The cast members blend into and out of their roles as a well-tuned ensemble with such incredible voices it’s hard to single any out. Still Kelli Blackwell in gorgeous cobalt blue headdress and booming voice functioned as narrator and assured a solid engagement throughout the production. Also with striking stage presence was returning performer Krislynn Perry in reddish attire the first act then a flowing red fluttering dress as she rocked the house with her strong vocals. Roy Patten, Jr’s vocal range penetrated the stratosphere with ease, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to remain in my seat with the incredible renditions of “I’m So Glad He Changed Me” and “Precious Lord” by other performers.
Costumes by Marci Rodgers explored black identity and pride—each was a piece of art inducing a sense of history and legacy with mud and kente cloth and cowry shell designs on the luxurious fabric for gorgeous and elegant effect.
November 25 – January 3, 2015
at Anacostia Playhouse
2020 Shannon Place SE
Washington, DC 20020
1 hour, 50 minutes with 1 intermission
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
The talented musicians, all returnees from the acclaimed 2014 production are Yusuf Chisholm on bass, Marvin Ford tickling the keyboard and an amazing Jonathan Livas doing wonders on percussion, including a drum solo that rocks the house. Sound designers worked overtime so that the amplification came through with clarity. The set has a staircase on both sides of the stage to help elevate the scenes and provide ample space for movement, including a shout or two, with the musicians jamming on the top level.
At the end of the show, I beamed with joy on exiting with other patrons, no longer strangers since we were joined in such exuberant spirit—some even spontaneously started testifying to each other of plans to return and bring others. That’s the kind of jubilant spirit that Black Nativity inspires.
It’s thrilling to witness the revival and attention to work shepherded by the legendary Mike Malone for years, re-established as a holiday tradition, steeped in rich cultural history. It’s a brave and wonderful move for Theater Alliance to keep the legacy alive and well. And audiences agree. Some shows are already selling out.
Joy to the world, Indeed!
Black Nativity by Langston Hughes . Directed by Eric Ruffin . Music Direction: e’Marcus Harper-Short . Featuring Jakiya Ayanna, Kelli Blackwell, Natasha Gallop, Marquis Gibson, Kinaya Grayson, Whitney Hutcherson, Roy Patten, Jr. Sherice Payne, Krislynn Perry, Elton Pittman, Ryan Swain, Darin Turner, Taylor Walls, Greg Watkins . Musicians: Marvin Ford, keyboard. Yusuf Chisholm on Bass. Jonathan Livas on Percussion . Choreography: Princess Mhoon . Scenic design: Brian Gillick . Costume design: Marci Rodgers . Lighting design: Dan Covey. Sound designer and engineering: Chris Lane . Stage Manager: Keta Newborn. Produced by Theater Alliance . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.