Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Over the years, Penumbra has staged variations of Black Nativity, including one set among freed Black slaves shortly after the Civil War. This year's edition returns to the original, based in the land of Jesus' birth, depicting his parents Joseph and Mary on their journey to Bethlehem and all that follows.
Black Nativity starts with a pair of rousing opening numbers, "I Will Sing Praises" and "We Glorify," performed by five members of the Kingdom of Life Church and Friends. This is a smaller choir than appeared the last time I saw the show, in 2017, but you would never know it by the power of their voices. Narrator Jennifer Whitlock then begins the reading of Hughes' sparse lines that tell what is believed to have happened, endowing each word with prodigious importance. The words, however, only introduce each notion. It is the music that brings Black Nativity to life, soaring through the roof with wails of grief and cries of glory.
Greta Oglesby and Dennis W. Spears, both top-tier actor-singers, alternate as soloists, starting with Spears' resonant "I Wonder as I Wander," then some familiar religious Christmas songs, such as "O Come, All Ye Faithful", in a reading by Oglesby that comes from deep within, and a haunting "Little Drummer Boy" for which Oglesby and Spears braid together their glorious voices. Choir director g'Beau Washington and choir member Deborah Finney join Oglesby and Spears in "O Jerusalem" and a rollicking "What You Gonna Name Him?" Finney has her own solo, "Jesus, Oh What a Wonderful Child," revealing herself as a force of nature, her voice an arsenal exploding with good news. Washington also offers an affecting solo, "Sweet Little Jesus Boy."
On two instances the nativity story is beautifully visualized by dancers Rahila Coats and Ezra Frazier depicting Mary and Joseph, with evocative choreography by Leslie Parker. Their first appearance enacts their suffering as they are turned away from inn after inn, seeking a place where they can pause as Mary is on the brink of giving birth. They return to express the mix of joy, wonder and reverence upon the arrival of their child, realizing that he is far more than merely theirs.
I have mentioned some highlights above, though every one of the seventeen songs is delivered with an exhilarating balance of grace and power. Each song is a response to the few words imparted by Whitlock and together, text, lyrics, music and movement form a complete scene, linked together to unroll the nativity story with such urgency, one might think it was the first time on Earth that it has been told.
Penumbra founder Lou Bellamy once again directs this mounting of Black Nativity, continuing to focus on the power of the story and the conviction with which these performers deliver it. The setting, by Lance Brockman, is a representation of a simple wood frame church, with the abstraction of a star in stained glass at its peak. Kathy Maxwell's lighting offers degrees of illumination as needed to properly present the story, with a beautiful sea of stars appearing above in their proper time. The cast members appear in dignified black apparel, with just sufficient sparkly trim to tip the scale from somber to celebratory.
Every year, upon its return, there has been an appreciative audience for Black Nativity, a holiday show that entertains while maintaining a focus on the spiritual basis of the Christmas season. As a secular Jew, I do not personally subscribe to the religiosity of its content, and yet each time I have seen Black Nativity I too am deeply moved. Aside from the awesome display of talent on stage, its heartfelt convictions, its glorification of the arrival of a better world, a world in which peace and fellowship, abundance and generosity, will reign, is undeniably powerful and appealing.
Given all that we collectively have been through since it was last presentedthe isolation and fear of a global pandemic, the anger and acrimony of a reckoning over racial injustice, and growing evidence of an approaching environmental calamitythe hunger of Black Nativity's message of hope in the dark of night, at the darkest time of year, can only be more welcome.
Black Nativity runs through December 24, 2021, at Penumbra Theatre, 270 North Kent Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets are $40.00; seniors (age 65 and up), $35.00; students with valid ID - $15.00 (one ticket per ID). For tickets call 651-224-3180 visit www.penumbratheatre.org.
Writer: Langston Hughes; Director: Lou Bellamy; Musical Director: Sanford Moore; Choreographer: Les Parker; Scenic Design: Lance Brockman; Lighting Design: Kathy Maxwell; Technical Director: Zeb Hults; Stage Manager: Mary K. Winchell; Senior Production Manager: Zeb Hults.
Cast: Rahila Coats (dancer), Deborah Finney (soloist), Ezra Frazier (dancer), Greta Oglesby (Soloist), Dennis W. Spears (Soloist), g'Beau Washington (choir director/soloist), Jennifer Whitlock (narrator), Kingdom of Life Church Choir and Friends: Deborah Finney, Angela Henderson, Nerita Hughes, Brandon A. Jackson, Karen Washington.