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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Penumbra's Black Nativity
Continues Its Evolution

Also see Ed's reviews of A Christmas Carol and A Christmas Carole Peterson

Black Nativity
Greta Oglesby, Ansa Akyea,
T. Mychael Rambo

Penumbra Theatre's Black Nativity, A Homecoming has been looking for home ever since it moved out of Langston Hughes' poetic telling of freed slaves, celebrating the birth of Jesus and their own rebirth into freedom. This year, Black Nativity is at home. Literally. On Jason Allyn-Sherman's inviting set of a sitting room and stairway, an extended African-American family gathers in widowed grandma's house to celebrate, testify and teach the children the true meaning of Christmas.

With the merest backstory and brush-stroke definition of characters and family roles, the 14-member ensemble enters deep into the lovely traditional songs in full-bodied joy. It's infectious stuff, and the intermissionless 85-minute production slips by in no time.

Underlying the family gathering is the recent loss of grandfather and the necessity to steep the two teenage grandchildren in the African-American traditions that surround Christmas. Aimee Bryant acts and sings the role of a teasing big sister to Cameron Hughes' callow younger brother. Both capture teenage reluctance to join in the praise-giving, but when they surrender, they sure can sing. Greta Oglesby brings her hallmark warmth and authority to the role of grieving family matriarch. T. Mychael Rambo plays her middle-aged son with flair, Ginger Commodore her daughter-in-law. Big-voiced and reed-slim Tonia Hughes, Xavier Rice, Thomasina Petrus, Dennis Spears, Jennifer Whitlock and Jack Yates round out the cast, great singers and movers all.

A beautiful young couple arrives late, bearing a new baby; they are the dancers, remarkable Germaul Baines and Yvonne Glenn. As the ensemble sings "No Room At The Inn," the two dance the anguish of Joseph and Mary, desperately seeking shelter in Bethlehem for laboring Mary. In Uri Sand's dynamic choreography, Glenn moves with angular agility, and charismatic Baines riveted my attention as Joseph, with his seamless flow of leaps and spins.

Rambo and Penumbra artistic director Lou Bellamy co-conceived this family-based evolution of Black Nativity and introduced a new figure. Ansa Akyea plays a metaphysical presence who draws song from the family members. Greg Horton's costume design of a flowing, creamy silk robe, spot-lit in a star-burst of light, invites seeing the figure as an angel. I prefer to think of him as the spirit of a griot, a West African wandering storyteller and disseminator of oral and cultural traditions. Speaking an African tongue, he arrives through the audience, to feed musical and cultural roots with origins in the soils of Africa. Akyea moves around the stage, unseen by the cast, conjuring responses from the ensemble with his hands. In an eye-pleasing remount of a scene from Penumbra's earlier Langston Hughes productions, the griot sows words in the mouths of a quilting circle

Twenty-nine glorious songs, praising the Lord and Jesus, enrich this sometimes amusing, sometimes tender and mostly joyous production. The ensemble sing from their hearts in compelling bluesy, gospel sound. Sanford Moore's jazz quartet plays unseen behind the scrim of the sitting room rear wall. For one brief moment on opening night, the volume threatened to overwhelm the amplified voices but then returned to good balance.

Austene Van co-directed Black Nativity with Lou Bellamy, and they certainly tap the Christmas spirit in this rousing celebration. In a creative touch, they include sign language into the hand choreography of "How Excellent Is Thy Name." Oh, and the children even forget to think about the awaiting presents, they become so caught up in the joy.

Do I feel Black Nativity has arrived home? Well, this new home is a fine home; but with its frequent references to the Langston Hughes original in scenes, dance and traditional songs, like "Go Tell It On The Mountain' and "What You Gonna Name That Pretty Little Baby?," I suspect Black Nativity could be trekking back to its roots.

Black Nativity Penumbra Theatre, November 30 December 24, 2006. Tuesdays, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 2:00 p.m. Thursday, 7:30 p.m. Fridays, 8:00 p.m. Saturdays 7:00 and 9:30 p.m., Sundays 7:00 p.m. Call for matinees on selected Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Penumbra Theatre, 270, North Kent Street, St. Paul. Tickets: $22- $52. Call 651-224-3180 or at www.penumbratheatre.org.


- Elizabeth Weir



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