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Improving on a classic in the 'Black Nativity'

In many cities throughout the United States these December days and nights -- amid festive red swags and green garlands -- one can find a production of the late Harlem Renaissance poet laureate Langston Hughes' song-play, "Black Nativity."

Buffalo is a latecomer to the scene. Boston, for example, has staged the show annually for more than 30 years. But the Paul Robeson Theatre and its artistic director, Paulette Harris, seem to be making up for lost time.

"Black Nativity" is back for a second run at the Robeson. The cast is smaller -- warmer -- and the choreography more spiritually energized. Also, there are many changes in the songs chosen to tell the Gospel of St. Luke, the ancient narrative that has shaped the Christian celebration of Christmas.

Once more the familiar: the pregnant Mary, reliable Joseph, the census of King Herod, Bethlehem, a stable, Jesus' birth, swaddling clothes, the attending Three Kings, a star in the East, an angel with news of great joy.

Tall Willie Judson narrates, introducing a worried Mary and Joseph, leading other travelers and villagers to witness the birth of the long-promised savior. They sing songs of praise and awe.

In "For Unto Us a Child Is Born," they wonder if Mary realizes who this baby is. "Mary, did you know?" they ask.

The news, of course, must go out. "Go Tell It on the Mountain," someone advises, and an invitation is offered: "O Come All Ye Faithful." Fifteen more songs -- spirituals, Sunday school hymns, traditional carols -- with alleluias aplenty finish Act I.

Act II traces the long and tortuous road to freedom for American blacks, using the Luke account of the birth of the Christ child as inspiration. There is more Good News, but narrator Judson -- previously sort of a wise uncle, with wink and whimsy telling stories to his nieces and nephews -- turns into a fire-and-brimstone preacher, and there is almost scold in the air. Director Harris has freely adapted "Black Nativity" -- it dates back to the 1960s, and it can use some update -- and these few Judson minutes, along with a quartet of dire songs of woe and warning, are powerful, thought-provoking and worthy of audience amens. The homilies, in truth, approach the overdone.

There are four returnees from last year: Charles Everhart, a gentle giant who again pairs with Annette Christian-Ragin on the quietly hopeful, contemporary "The Prayer," and the animated Phobie Davis and Nina Sanders.

Fine additions include Sandra Cooke Gilliam and Beverly Crowell. Also outstanding is Shareef Ali in his Robeson debut and on the rocker, "It's All About You."

Kenya Hall, Myles Stubblefield, Terry Wideman and third-grader Alex Christian complete the cast.

Musical director Frazier T. Smith's arrangements aid and abet, and this time around his trio -- situated just off-stage -- doesn't overpower the lyrics.

Harris has adapted the show well. Newcomer choreographer Carlos Jones' work is full of joyful abandon and uses the spacious and stepped set by Harlan Penn to great advantage. Jones, with a briefcase full of dance design credits, is a welcome addition.

"Black Nativity" has been called the black community's Christmas card to the world.

Alleluia.

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Theater Review

"Black Nativity"

Review: 3 stars (Out of four)

Presented by Paul Robeson Theatre Company. Playing through Sunday in African-American Cultural Center.

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