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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Penumbra's Reflections on Black Nativity
on the cusp of a new tradition

Keith McCutchen, Patricia Lacy-Aiken, Thomasina Petrus, T. Mychael Rambo, and Yolande Bruce
The stage is dark, the house packed. A drum breaks the hush and T. Mychael Rambo enters through the audience, singing a quiet "I love the Lord." He looks around, uncertain, as though lost. A voice from backstage joins him, more voices from the rear of the house, and his eyes blaze. He steps onto the stage, puts on his dress coat and launches into "Go Tell it on the Mountain" in his rich baritone, and we're off on a rafter-shaking, gospel celebration of Jesus' birth that is irresistible in its joy.

In the 1980s, Penumbra Theatre launched Black Nativity, a moving, gospel-inspired interpretation of Langston Hughes' story of newly emancipated slaves, traveling north and stopping to celebrate the birth of Jesus. For years it vied in popularity with the Guthrie's A Christmas Carole and played in large rented theaters. However, it evolved into a soup of African culturalism and lost focus and poignancy. After a couple of faltering re-attempts, Penumbra returns a vastly simplified Reflections on Black Nativity to its intimate home stage, and I felt a welcome sense of homecoming.

Conceived by T. Mychael Rambo and artistic director Lou Bellamy, this Reflections of Black Nativity pays homage to Penumbra's original productions and its casts in song and slides that are projected behind the half-circle of singers, but it has an authentic identity of its own. Rambo, who played the minister in the original, plays a similar role in the new gospel show, as he leads the ensemble through their rousing paces. He is by turn reverent, joyful, tender and even playful, as he gamely emulates lithe dancer Bernard Brown (Joseph), and he sings with such spirit that I felt he must be singing his beliefs.

That spirit ignites the ensemble who - each and everyone - has a terrific set of pipes, from 16 year-old budding gospel star Paris Bennet, to Soul of Blackness favorite Angela Henderson. Patricia Lacy-Aiken brings a deep mezzo to the mix; Jamecia Bennet adds glamour and voice; PaviElle French has power; Tonia Hughes, sweetness; and Thomasina Petrus, finesse. Male voices are Darius Ewing of Sounds of Blackness and Cameron Hughes, another young artist-in-the-making, who is developing a stage presence to match his voice. (Yolanda Bruce was absent on Saturday night.)

This ensemble needs no amplification, which adds to the sense of intimacy and inclusiveness in the Penumbra space. They tease each other and recreate scenes from Hughes' original Black Nativity, like the charming quilting scene. Their palpable sense of joy to be on stage together, celebrating the coming of Christ filled the house and invited responses from the audience and set toes tapping.

Danita Nicole dances Mary. She's as slender as a willow slip, but her writhing movements, in Toni Pierce-Sand's intensely physical, yet reverend choreography, leave no doubt that Mary is in heavy labor. Brown as Joseph dances high-energy distraction opposite her. Once the unseen Jesus is born, I anticipated less energy and more tenderness from Mary than Sands allows.

Jazz-infused onstage music comes from Keith McCutchen and Marital Bescombes on keyboards, J.A. Young III on Bass and Craig Dion on drums.

This unpretentious Nativity spills with joy and has the oomph to become a new Christmas tradition for Penumbra. Now, it needs a complete break from the old title. Reflections on Black Nativity is too strongly identified with Langston Hughes' moving natal story of Jesus, and of American slaves, reborn into freedom. This celebration tells of Jesus' nativity and borrows many of the original's songs, but it's a new work in its own right and needs to move out into the world under a new name. How about Gospel Nativity?

Reflections of Black Nativity December 10 - 26, 2004. Thursdays 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays 8:00 p.m. Sundays 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets $15. Penumbra Theatre, Martin Luther King Center, 270, North Kent Street, St. Paul. Call 651- 224-3180.

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Elizabeth Weir

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