Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Black Nativity
Penumbra Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and The Lion in Winter and Kit's review of Cinderella

Dennis W Spears and Cast
Photo by Caroline Yang
Penumbra Theatre's annual mounting of Black Nativity has arrived, its 29th consecutive holiday offering that celebrates the Christmas season with no mention of tinsel or lights, no swipes at shopping fatigue or cookie overload, not even a passing reference to Santa, Rudolph, Scrooge, or the Grinch. African-American poet Langston Hughes' play, which first appeared Off-Broadway in 1961, goes to the very heart of the season in telling what happened over 2000 years ago in the city of Bethlehem, enacted by a cast made up entirely of black actors. The text emphasizes Joseph and Mary's lowly stature, forced to not only pass the night, but deliver their child in the most humble of settings, yet that child arose to the most glorious and virtuous of heights.

Penumbra has reworked the play into different formats over the past 29 years, for several years building it around a contemporary story of a grieving widow during a period placing it in a civil war setting that incorporated the Emancipation Proclamation into the story. This year's production is very much like the one I saw two years ago, with Hughes' text recited by Lou Bellamy (Penumbra's founder and co-Artistic Director as well as the director of this production) with each segment brought to glorious life by the beautifully meshed voices of the Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church Choir and two guest soloists, along with a rousing five-piece band led by musical director Sanford Moore. The solo vocalists this year are, once again, Greta Oglesby and Dennis W. Spears. Ms. Oglesby was unable to perform at the opening and her spot was most ably filled by PaviElle French, a shining light in the Twin Cities R&B music scene. This year's production also includes two ballet sequences beautifully performed by Taylor Collier and Randall Riley, members of TU Dance, which add a gracefully visualized element to the personages of Mary and Joseph.

Black Nativity is set with a simple wood framed church structure designed by Lance Brockman framing the choir, and lit by Grant E. Merges to draw us into the range of emotions as the story unfolds—hurt, dismay, regret, and especially, jubilation that ends with a gloriously star-filled sky over the Penumbra stage. After an opening riff from the tightly wound mix of guitar, bass, percussion, organ and keyboard, the choir enters and lifts the house with two songs, "I Will Sing Praises," and "We Glorify," setting a tone of bounteous redemption that lasts even through the story's more somber moments. Yolande Bruce directs the choir with electrifying energy, bringing a physicality to the beautiful musical harmonies.

Dennis W. Spears performs the first solo, a spine-tingling "I Wonder as I Wander," one of many highlights of the 90-minute show, which also include "My Way Is Cloudy" and "O, Come All Ye Faithful," sung (on opening night) by PaviElle French, and Yolande Bruce's searing performance of "Sweet Little Jesus Boy." Spears and French pair for a hypnotic rendition of "Little Drummer Boy," and Spears, French, Bruce and choir member Deborah Finney offer two stellar songs, "O, Jerusalem" and "What You Gonna Name Him?" Finney steps out with her own solo, "Jesus, Oh What a Wonderful Child," that lifts the rafters off the walls. While these are some of the highlights, every one of the seventeen musical pieces is wonderful.

As is evidenced by Black Nativity's return year after year, there is an enduring longing for a show that touches the spirit of the holidays, that lifts us above the festive and generous impulses (both perfectly great feelings in their own rights) and illuminates the potential for peace in its most pure and embracing form. I myself, raised in the Jewish religion, have no sentimental attachment or ingrained receptiveness to the nativity story itself. Yet I am moved every time by Black Nativity's genuine passion for a higher plane of existence where goodness, inclusiveness and egalitarianism prevails. After last month's bruising election and the continued rancor among people, Black Nativity offers a glimpse of hope and joy that could not be more welcome.

Black Nativity continues through December 23, 2016, at Penumbra Theatre, 270 North Kent Street, Saint Paul, MN. Tickets are $40.00; Seniors (age 62 and up), $35.00; Students with valid ID - $15.00 (one ticket per ID). For tickets call 651-224-3180 or go to

Writer: Langston Hughes; Director: Lou Bellamy; Musical Director: Sanford Moore; Choreographer: Uri Sands; Scenic Design: Lance Brockman; Lighting Design: Grant E. Merges; Sound Design: Martin Gwinup; Stage Manager: Mary K. Winchell.

Cast: Lou Bellamy (Narrator), Yolande Bruce (Choir Director/Soloist), Taylor Collier (Dancer), Deborah Finney (Soloist), PaviElle French (Soloist, Opening Night only), Greta Oglesby (Soloist, not appearing on Opening Night), Randall Riley (Dancer), Dennis W. Spears (Soloist). Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church Choir: Amiri Brotherson, John Carter, Deborah Finney, Nerita Hughes, Heather McElrath, Vivian Moore, Linda Sloan, Dennis Spencer, Willy Taylor Sr.

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