Is there a roof left in Anacostia? Doubtful, now that Black Nativity is back in the community for a third time.
A joyful noise is made—and then some—in Theater Alliance’s soulful, soul-stirring revival of Black Nativity, Langston Hughes’ 1961 “Gospel Song-Play” that, as one character says, “puts the Christ back in Christmas.”
The story of Jesus’ birth and its particular meaning to black Americans is explored through gospel, jazz, soul, swing and a smattering of hip-hop, as well as evocative dance, in this updated version of the modern holiday classic.
Director and choreographer Princess Mhoon, along with musical director e’Marcus Harper-Short keep it real and immediate with new songs, dances, vision and costumes—a special shout-out to Brandee Mathies’ rich, multi-textured costumes of crushed velvet, brocade and linen, all trimmed in seashells as befitting African culture. Mathies pays tribute to costumer Reggie Ray, and you can see his boldness and fierceness in her designs.
Scenic designer Brian Gillick evokes a timeless church setting, with Gothic archways flanking an altar-like stage with choir risers and stairs leading up to a platform holding the trio of musicians: e’Marcus Harper-Short (keyboard), Jon-Matthew Hopkins (drums), Yusef Chisholm (bass).
Church lamps emit warm glows of light, especially one that resembles the star of Bethlehem. The palate is in desert hues, which set off the vivid costumes. And you really don’t want anything to distract you from the explosive elation of the ensemble, who start off the show by bringing it with a “Joy to the World” performed with African cadences and rhythmic clapping that slaps you right into a celebratory mood.
The telling of the Christ story begins a male chorus singing the subdued, measured tones of “Brother My Way Seem Cloudy,” a traditional gospel song. Through dynamically articulated dance, we see Mary (the lithe, impassioned Danielle Glover) visited by the Holy Spirit and told she will give birth to the Prince of Peace, and then is joined by her husband Joseph (Tony Thomas II, whose leaps and turns are soundless and feather-light) for the difficult journey to Bethlehem.
A group of flibberty-gibbets gossip and snub Mary’s need for a place to give birth (“No Room at the Inn”) and later, in a stable, Mary undergoes writhing labor while the ensemble surrounds her singing “O Jerusalem in the Morning” like an incantation.
The shepherds who are drawn to the Christ child are first seen in realistic light, sleeping on the job and razzing each other good-naturedly (“No Good Shepherd Boy”) complete with vaudevillian antics, before heeding the call and going to Bethlehem (“Rise Up Shepherd and Follow,” “Christ is Born in Bethlehem” “O Come Let Us Adore Him”).
The stately sway of “A Midnight Clear” conveys the momentousness of the occasion, as does the poetic narrative delivered by ensemble member Frank Britton. But what is so striking and lovely about Black Nativity is how it celebrates the birth of Jesus, but also the simple miracle of a child. Songs like “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” rejoice in new life, new hope, the promise of a new generation to carry on.
By the end of the first act, you are, in the words of an audience member “sweating and crying,” but hold onto your tears because the second act is a rousing contemporary church service. As the dancers evoke angels with their swirling leaps and turns, the ensemble makes their entrances like in the “Soul Train” line dance.
closes December 31, 2016
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In between heartfelt testifying (including call and response from the audience), the ensemble rolls into an extended mix of the old and the new, beginning with a glorious “Sweet Holy Jesus” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” that got the whole theater rocking and singing. A scatting and jivey “Angels We Have Heard on High” led into a soulful rendition of “The First Noel,” a hip-hop “Hallelujah Chorus” and a buoyant song about Mary with Latin inflections.
The other bracing aspect of Black Nativity is how they take holiday classics that are heard so often they become aural wallpaper during the Christmas season and take them back to their roots so you hear them anew with a gladdened heart. The ensemble sings and articulates the lyrics with such purity and intention you feel like you’re listening for the first time.
By the time we get to “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and a swing version of “Silent Night” followed by an ecstatic “Hallelujah Chorus” reprise, you kinda feel reborn yourself—a child full of spirit and wonder, ready to go out into the world and spread kindness and peace.
Black Nativity by Langston Hughes . Director and Choreographer: Princess Mhoon. Featuring: Catrina Brenae, Frank Britton, Demitrus (Demie) Carter, Amailya Holley, Jocelyn Jenkins, Derrionne Key, Branden Mack, Shante M. Moore, R. Joshua Reynolds, Awa Sal Secka, Danielle Glover, Tony Thomas II, e’Marcus Harper-Short, Jon-Matthew Hopkins, Yusef Chisholm. Music Direction: e’Marcus Harper-Short. Scenic Design: Brian Gillick. Lighting Design: John Alexander. Sound Design: Dan Deiter. Costume Design: Brandee Mathies (with tribute to Reggie Ray). Properties Design: Eric Schwartz with Brian Gillick. Stage Manager: Tre Wheeler.Produced by Theater Alliance . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.