Theater Alliance’s production of Black Nativity at the Anacostia Playhouse is a gloriously joyful noise indeed. An Afrocentric celebration of the Christmas story rooted in the strength and power of the African Diaspora, Black Nativity is a jubilant holiday classic and unforgettable theatrical experience. Under the direction of Eric Ruffin, this newly created Black Nativity has a freshness that exalts the black experience in transcendent universal themes of peace, love, joy and liberation that will appeal to all cultures, religions and ages.
The beat of the African drum and a majestic parade of regally-robed African kings and queens welcome the birth of the New Born King in this foot-stomping, hand-clapping production. The sound of African dialects and the soulful modern dance movements of Mary and Joseph lend a heavenly aura to the overture and “Joy to the World.” e’Marcus Harper-Short’s musical direction transports you back to Bethlehem by way of the Mother Land in vibrant gospel, blues, jazz and funk renditions of Christmas carols that never felt so good. Princess Mhoon’s deeply expressive dance choreography creates an energy that keeps that the ensemble moving mellifluously and highlights the strong modern technique and interpretation by dance duo Ny’a Johnson and G. Carlos Henderson who portray Mary and Joseph.
First performed at the Lincoln Theater in New York in 1961, Black Nativity is an exuberant song-play of Langston Hughes’ poetic narrative. An ensemble of twelve talented music griots takes this show to apostolic heights proclaiming the reason for the season in song, dance, and mime: Natasha Gallop, Jason Johnson, Krislynn Perry, Marquis D. Gibson, Shante’ M. Moore, Elton Pittman, G. Carlos Henderson, Thomascena Nelson, Addison Switzer, Ny’a Johnson, Roy Patten Jr., and Jakiya Ayanna. The even number of men to women yields a match in vivacious masculine and feminine energies that are palpable throughout this production. And a trio of superb musicians grace the stage adding musical accompaniment that help bring to life this soulful epic of the birth of Jesus: Yoseph Chisholm on bass, Jonathan “Footz” Livas on drums and Marvin Ford on keyboard.
A simple stage seating the musicians and two floor-to-ceiling wooden gothic arches by Set Designer Brian Gillick move you from what feels like the heart of the African savannah where Christ was born to the front pews of Rock Church. Almost all of the production is floor-level. Christmas Negro spirituals such as “No Room in the Inn,” “What You Gonna Name Your Baby?,” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain” create a groundswell of rhythm and musical force in the first act. Thomascena Nelson’s powerful “Poor Little Jesus” funk/ blues rendition is sung with the commanding presence, heart and soul of the mighty Mahalia Jackson. “Christ is Born” belted out by the delightfully charismatic Krislynn Perry is a showstopper. Krislynn’s spirited, high energy star power stands out like a blinding light every single time she takes center stage. Jason Johnson’s “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” is sweet indeed as Jason’s deep mellow vocals carry this ballad with passion and conviction.
Baptized and born again, the second act marches, struts, claps and preaches you into contemporary times in the Christian experience through sacred song and movement. Church ladies in colorfully fancy hats and preacher-man vests and ties by Costume Designer Collin Ranney set the stage for the praises and the shouts. Jakiya Ayanna’s stirring “Changed” showcases her powerful vocals in this emotional ballad; and Thomascena Nelson’s solo of “Precious Lord” is a moving tribute to this longtime Christian favorite. The full ensemble blazes a glorious shout-out in the hand-clapping “Holy” and “Total Praise.” A fitting encore/exit finale is the miraculous “Miracles” joyously sung by the full ensemble.
Theater Alliance’s Black Nativity is like bottled energy that spills across the floor space of the Anacostia Playhouse in spurts, bursts and swirls of dramatic magnetism. The challenge for this effusive ensemble is to use the limited floor space of the intimate Anacostia Playhouse in a way that allows for the best presentation of the group’s tremendous talent. The cast makes best use of the physical limitations even though at times it feels like pent up energy that demands a bigger space that matches the greatness of what you are witnessing.
The magic of Black Nativity is its capacity to make you feel the words of every song, move you with each dramatic gesture of the dancers, and transport you with the proud flow of the ensemble. Like the essence of the black church itself, this production is a participatory experience that creates a sense of community and pride in its unrestrained, timeless message of service, hope, and freedom.
Soul-stirring, emotional and get-happy all rolled into one fabulous show, Black Nativity is the kind of terrific production that you wish you could see over again; it is that good. The performers are all amazing, each possessing the vocal prowess and the personal power and presence to project the fullness of the pulsating mood and moment that will surely leave the theater with you. Treat yourself to this absolutely wonderful Christmas present.
Running Time: 90 minutes, plus one 15-minute intermission