Review: ‘Black Nativity’ at New Freedom Theatre

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Fifty years is a very long time for an arts group to exist in this changing world and economy, but Freedom Theatre is celebrating its golden anniversary with a reconceived production of its traditional favorite Black Nativity.

Danzel Thompson-Stout James Pitts Jr., and Julian Darden. Photo by Brian Hunt.
Danzel Thompson-Stout James Pitts Jr., and Julian Darden. Photo by Brian Hunt.

I first saw Black Nativity in a tiny theater in the Broad and Master complex in a production directed by John E Allen, Jr. It was small scale and touching. Then Walter Dallas directed a larger production with exciting choreography by Patricia Scott Hobbs. That version followed the outline of Langston Hughes Off-Broadway show, with an African nativity in the first act and a very American gospel service in the second. It was memorable.

This has now been totally rethought by new artistic director/author Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj who has created a joyful evening of drumming and dance with a entirely new twist. This is a very different Black Nativity from those offered in other cities.

Maharaj’s vision is a 95 minute musical that combines traditional European carols (“Silent Night”, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”) with spirituals (“Wade in the Water”, “Amazing Grace”) all accompanied by the complex rhythms of an African drum, (and a rainstick for the quieter moments), played by the stunning Lo McDowell. Sometimes it doesn’t work (Georg F. Handel will probably always resist Africanization), but most of the evening brings amazing rewards. The Regney/Baker pop-carol “Do You Hear What I Hear” assumes surprising resonance when delivered with stirring African choral harmonies. Even “What Child is This?” (which is really the old English “Greensleeves”) is enhanced by adding an African beat.

Add to this an amazing company of singer dancers, each of whom is given a moment to reveal their amazing skills, and the result is spellbinding.  This is one of those productions that has so much energy that one wonders if the performance can ever be repeated. The show closes December 18th and hopefully they will all survive until then. The drumming and dancing almost never stops, and it took four choreographers to bring it off (Maharaj, Sanchel Brown, Julian Darden, and Danzel Thompson-Stout). Just amazing. The musical direction of Taylor Samuels is so spot-on, with its extensive choral singing that you totally forget that there is no orchestra; just the drumming.

Jordan Dobson and Leedea Harrison. Photo by Brian Hunt.
Jordan Dobson and Leedea Harrison. Photo by Brian Hunt.

The sets and costumes are Africa supreme. Marley Boone dresses the cast in the most colorful and elegant robes imaginable, (look out especially for those angels). The set (designed by Maharaj, Ken Jordan and James Smallwood) keeps the action moving, with its large mobile of Africa and a bright star, (moody lighting by Andrew Cowles)  dominating the proceedings. Anthony Hughes sound design is clear and loud, but as the sound emits from speakers above the stage, is it often difficult to discern who is speaking or singing.  The cast has strong voices and one is tempted to suggest pulling the plug. It might be more powerful. Or maybe not.

But wait, before you purchase that plane ticket to Africa, there’s more.  Maharaj’s Black Nativity tells not one but two stories. First is the traditional one where Joseph (the lovable Jordan Dobson), and Mary (a radiant Leedea Harrison) find no room at the inn. Their a cappella rendition of “O Holy Night is a standout. This is interspersed with a modern story set in Darfur, the site of numerous atrocities including rape, terrorism, and murder.There is a Darfur/Mary, (Lauren Morgan) who is separated from her imprisoned Darfur/Joseph, (James Pitts, Jr.) and is soon to be a mother. Unlike Biblical/Mary, who looks forward to the birth, Darfur/Mary contemplates suicide, as the world is too terrible a place for a new child. This conflation results in some chilling moments. Soon after the three wise men sing “We Three Kings” their royal staffs seem to morph into rifles and the same actors begin to brutally beat and terrorize their victims.Morgan also brings the house down with the very un-holiday “Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child.” You’ll want to cash in that plane ticket for a donation to Save Darfur.

This idea works splendidly on an intellectual level, as it reminds us that Africa and its people are a complex and frequently unfathomable organism.  But the show is lacking a strong book, (not that Black Nativity ever had one), that would give Darfur/Mary a specific characterization we could emotionally relate to.Ultimately, it doesn’t matter.

The superb company includes Julian Darden, Nicholas Trawick, Sanchel Brown, Sophiann Moore and Danzel Thompson-Stout. Philadelphia’s own African American theatre is rejuvenated on its golden anniversary. That’s quite a Christmas present.

Running Time: 95 minute, without an intermission.

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Black Nativity plays through Sunday December 18 at Freedom Theatre 1346 North Broad Street in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets call 367-209-6050 or purchase them online.