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Theater review

"Black Nativity" *** 1/2

Continues through Dec. 5 in the Paul Robeson Theatre, African-American Cultural Center, 350 Masten Ave. 884-2013.

Joy to the world, peace on Earth to men of good will. Welcome wishes as this worrisome and contentious year of 2004 enters its last weeks.

The words, of course, are from the Gospel of St. Luke, included in a narrative that has shaped the Christian celebration of Christmas for centuries, the public pageants, the private images: The heavy-with-child Mary, dutiful husband Joseph, the census at Bethlehem, no-room-at-the-inn, a barn for Jesus' birth, attending angels, swaddling clothes, a star in the East, Three Kings, gold, frankincense and myrrh, curious animals, the First Noel.

The late Langston Hughes, the renowned poet laureate of the famed Harlem Renaissance, retold the famous story from a black perspective in the early 1960s, calling it "Black Nativity," a "song-play," telling the tale with little variation, surrounding it with traditional carols, Sunday school hymns and camp meeting spirituals, finishing up with celebrations of life, tributes to the long road to freedom traveled by American blacks and a chorus of alleluias to the universal promise of peace brought by a child so long ago.

"Black Nativity" is an annual production in many large American cities. Boston's version, often with a cast numbering into the hundreds, opens its 35th consecutive yearly "Nativity" this coming weekend. Paulette Harris, artistic director for the Paul Robeson Theatre, had heard of a Buffalo production of the Hughes work perhaps two decades ago. Harris, again recruiting the esteemed Reginald Kelly to direct for the Robeson, decided that it was way overdue for a reprise.

Narrator Dee Perry sets the scene, introducing a wordless and balletic Mary and Joseph who begin their historic trek to Bethlehem. Songs -- old, new, sweet, rousing -- speed them along, obstacle melodies such as "No Room," descriptive ones like "Here Lies the King," a good news message, "Go Tell It on the Mountain" and an invitation, "O Come All Ye Faithful." It's the joyous account according to Luke.

Act II assembles all into the fold -- rich, poor, pariahs, young, old -- to dance and shout more good news: the raucous "How I Got Over," "Jesus Is the Best Thing (That Ever Happened to Me)," more praising anthems and the very pretty but tentatively done recent ballad, "The Prayer," among many others, handclappers as well as songs of thanks, wonder and awe.

It's a mix, the music. Harris, director Kelly and musical director Frazier T. Smith have made fine choices. retaining some of the original Hughes score, polishing the traditional and adding the contemporary. Smith's musicians are skilled but overpowering at times; some wonderful lyrics are lost.

The cast includes some Robeson newcomers and veterans: Take particular note of the poised Perry, the powerful and animated Phobie Davis, Sandra Clay, Charles A. Everhart, Sr., the estimable Joyce Carolyn -- what a luxury to have this diva in the chorus -- and a great young talent, Viviane Ouedraogo.

"Black Nativity" has long been described as the black community's "Christmas card to the world." Amen to that.

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