by John Stoltenberg
I saw Black Nativity last year at Anacostia Playhouse and was so thrilled by it (as I wrote in my rave review), I had to go again this year.
I went expecting to see a reproduction of a splendid show every bit as good as before. That’s what theaters typically do when they remount a hit, and this was Theater Alliance’s third year in a row producing this uplifting Christmas show.
But what I saw was instead brilliantly different, a glorious re-envisioning of the entire production. The cast, the music, the costumes, the choreography and direction—I could not believe how much has changed! Exactly as before, it’s an exhilarating must-see, a theatrical and musical high from beginning to end, a pulse-pounding pageantful of talent and praise. But even if you think you’ve already seen Theater Alliance’s Black Nativity, the new production is a must-see-once-more.
Black Nativity was born in the 1960s as a song play by the great African American author and activist Langston Hughes, who based it on the narrative of the birth of Jesus as told in the Gospel of Luke. It was intended to be performed by an all-black cast. Hughes—who today would likely identify as same gender loving—enriched the King James Version of the text with his own poetic gifts and artfully inserted such Christmas carols as “Joy to the World” and “Oh Come Let Us Adore Him” (sung old-time gospel style) and Negro spirituals such as “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”
In the first of its two acts, Black Nativity relates the familiar stories surrounding Christ’s birth—no room in the inn, shepherds watching their flock, the visit of the magi, and so on. Much of the storytelling is ceremonial and movingly reverential, set to a soaring score newly arranged by Musical Director e’Marcus Harper-Short, but there are many flashes of levity and wit as well. The scene when shepherds watching their flock learn of Jesus’ birth is played as comic relief, as one of them (a delightful Derrionne Key) keeps nodding off instead of looking out for the sheep. At another point Amaiya Holley, Catrina Brenae, and Jocelyn Jenkins sing backup as if they’re a girl group out of Motown.
For this act that harks back to long ago, Costume Designer Brandee Mathies dresses the ensemble of ten in an all-new wardrobe of boldly colorful and ornately adorned headwear and robes that are raiments of wonder. The simpler, flowing garments of Mary and Joseph, who are danced not spoken or sung, are in a contrasting palette of earth tones and white. The effect is stunning.
Director and Choreographer Princess Mhoon, who did the choreography last year, has reconceived it significantly. For instance the lovely dance performances of Mary and Joseph (Danielle Glover and Tony Thomas II) appear as scripted during the birth narrative (Glover’s dramatic depiction of Mary’s contractions is particularly gripping; Thomas’s panic is eloquent, his lithe leaps extraordinary). But Mhoon has them reappear in scenes throughout the show, such that at times it’s as if they evoke the presence of angels.
The second act, set in the present day, was staged powerfully last year by Director Eric Ruffian as a church service with contemporary political overtones. In Mhoon’s vision the second act is a stirring, belt-it-from-the-mountaintop Christmas concert, and Costume Designer Mathies gives the magnificent choir a wardrobe of eye-popping red.
Harper-Short’s fresh arrangements become even more striking in Act Two: well-known carols shifted to a minor key, jazz and blues stylings, and more. The originality in his unconventional treatment of familiar Christmas tunes is alone worth a visit this season to Anacostia Playhouse. His “Silent Night” is especially surprising.
The five women and five men who comprise the ensemble are phenomenal: Catrina Brenae, Frank Britton, Demitrus (Demie) Carter, Amaiya Holley, Jocelyn Jenkins, Derrionne Key, Branden Mack, Shanté M. Moore, R. Joshua Reynolds, and Awa Sal Secka. The musicians who get the joint rejoicing sound much greater in number than the three we see on stage: Harper-Short on keyboard, Jon-Matthew Hopkins on drums, and Yusef Chisholm on bass.
Scenic Designer Brian Gillick’s set, the only element of the show basically unchanged from last year, creates a space that can seem both nave and concert stage. Lighting Designer John Alexander achieves effects that seem as if the sun is streaming through stained glass, and a suspended lantern stands in brightly for the star of Bethlehem. A wirelessly mic’ed, full-throated chorus and a loud band make for a major audibility and amplification challenge, but Sound Designer/Engineer Dan Deiter rises to it without a glitch. Close your eyes and just listen and you’re lifted up to live-music heaven.
The joyous celebration that Langston Hughes began more than half a century ago has become one of the most beloved works of faith-based American musical theater. Perhaps it has no peer. If so, there’s a profound reason: Part of Black Nativity’s power is the depth of religious devotion in the worship traditions that express its scriptural source. But another part of the work’s power arises from how beautifully and meaningfully it can be adapted and shaped by the artistic teams who stage it to reflect the times and communities in which it is performed. In that sense Theater Alliance’s fresh new production of Black Nativity is as suffused with a timeless gift of spirit as it is infused with creative inspiration and grounded in a neighborhood’s here and now.
Running Time: One hour 40 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.