‘Christmas Gift!’ at Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center by Audrey Thornton

 

A Celebration of African American Holiday Traditions Through Music and Spoken Word

Nolan Williams, Jr. Photo courtesy of Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

The premiere was, as they say, “all that.” Before an appreciative fully engaged audience Director and artistic creator Nolan Williams, Jr. of the concert production Christmas Gift! lavished spiritual gifts in song and spoken word to celebrate, inspire, and remind us of the long standing African American custom of parents sharing Christmas stories with their children based on culture and traditions. From the moment the concert begins, the melodic singing of the Voices of Inspiration, with Guest Soloists Shirley Murdock, John Stoddart, and Mr. Williams filled the space evoking long ago memories of our own childhood.

Christmas Gift! celebrates African American culture, spirituality and music. The music in and of itself was a gift, wherein one can enjoy and draw appreciation from a variety of selections ranging from time-honored spirituals and gospels to jazz and R&B. Add to that the introduction, for some, to such venerable artists as Shelton Becton “Have You Heard About the Baby?” and the works of luminaries as W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, and Margaret T. Applegarth, one’s spiritual palette was satisfied.

Using a mélange of stories told by griots Malife Nkruhman, Lafleur Paysour, Daron Stewart, and Iyona Blake; drawing from African American traditions passed down for literally centuries, the audience was drawn in to reminisce about their own family traditions. Band Director Warren Jones with deep musical roots in gospel, capably lead his musicians in support of the stories showcasing Choreographer Jakari Sherman’s expertise and skills.

Mr. Williams explained the custom or game of [shouting] “Christmas Gif’” played by slaves on Christmas Day. The slaves when meeting for the first time that day competed by being the first to call out “Christmas Gif’!” Whether one found pleasure in being the winner or the one “caught” was beside the point; the intrinsic reward was in the giving. Of a people who gave despite the social realities of racism and economic hardship. If asked to choose one word to describe my own Christmas memories as a child, it would be the word “overjoyed,” despite all circumstances, it was the one time of the year, my family set aside all our cares.

Mr. Williams’ interpretation of the message underlying the “Christmas Gift’” tradition and his entire production had four recurring themes: (1) Embracing the real meaning of Christmas: Love; (2) Embodying Love by committing random acts of kindness; (3) Affirming the worth of family, friends, and strangers; and (4) giving gifts that are extensions of ourselves, not merely products of our income.” Drawing from his original words and music, “Christmas Gift’” Verse 1 reads:

It’s a tradition on Christmas day
That when Walking along one’s way
When you’re meeting a stranger say:
Christmas Gift! Christmas Gift!

and, the Bridge:

This Christmas I will simplify
Lift Jesus name and message high
This Christmas I will share my wealth
Of time and love; I’ll give myself.

Of special note, Messiah Ramkissoon (Spoken Word), a native of Trinidad and Tobago, ‘walked the talk’ through poetry, versecraft, and poetic license, delivering God’s message of Love, and drawing standing applause for his oratorical skills. His poetic genius, from a young age, was undeniable.

Guest Soloist Shirley Murdock’s powerful voice lent inspiration to renditions of classic gospel that was heartening, inspiring, reassuring and most of all inspiriting. For a short while, we had church. It was apparent from the moment Guest Soloist John Stoddart stepped on stage that his seasoned, mellow voice was more than exceptional; it touched and ministered to a place inside me that cried for more. An accomplished artist, composer, writer, and instrumentalist, his talent is in how he connects with the soul through music.

I was impressed with the originality and creative imagination of other selections as well. Mr. Williams modern arrangement of “African Noel [Sing to the Lord, Alleluia];” “What Child Is This?;” and “Some Children See Him” was inspiring and animated. It infused and enlivened the evening to everyone’s pleasure. Not to tell everything, I strongly recommend this concert! You are in for some real treats – especially when the Kwanzaa Suite takes the stage, complete with African dance and steppin’ a time honored dance tradition in African American communities.

CREDITS:
Raquis Petree (Assistant Director) (Choreographer); Warren Jones (Band Director); Theljon Allen (Trumpeter); Tyrae Brown (Keyboardist); Steven Evans (Set Percussionist); Dewayne Holton (Percussionist); Tyler Sherman (Bass Guitarist); Steven Walker (Lead Guitarist);Steven Walker(Trombonist); Clarence Ward II (Tenor Saxophonist); Voices of Inspiration (Choir); Shirley Murdock (Guest Soloist); John Stoddart (Guest Soloist); Messiah Ramkissoon  (Spoken Word); KonKouran West African Drummers; and NEWorks Harambee Dancers & Steppers. Reggise Duffie (Visual Artist); Malife Nkruhman (Griot); Lafleur Paysour (Griot); Daron Stewart (Griot); Iyona Blake (Griot); Warren Jones (Bank Director); and Jakari Sherman (Choreographer).

Running Time: Two hours, with one 15 minute intermission.

Christmas Gift! has one more performance TONIGHT December 15th at 8:00 p.m. at Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center – 3800 Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the intersection of Stadium Drive and Route 193 (University Boulevard) at University of Maryland in College Park, MD. For tickets, purchase them online, or call the box office at (301) 405-2787. Directions are here.

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