There are many joyous traditions this time of year, but to my mind the most indispensable has become Black Nativity. With its spiritual values on its finely-woven sleeve, it’s a show that inspires some of the best singing—scratch that, the absolute best singing—you’ll find in the DC area.
Black Nativity has consistently drawn from among the most talented singers around, a number of whom regard music as a vital part of their ministry, and the result is a truly uplifting experience. Working from Langston Hughes’ original concept, director Stephawn Stephens has leavened the proceedings with some clever vignettes, but has devoted most of the evening to praise, testimony, and song.
The first act recounts the Christmas story, with the cast decked out in costume designer Alison Johnson’s rich, colorful African dress. We follow the travails of Joseph and Mary (played, and beautifully danced, by the charming André McKamey and the dynamic Shawna Williams), and the action unfolds around and among the audience, with entrances, songs and exits up and down the aisles. A sequence of devotional dances—choreographed by Rodni Williams—reflect their dreams and struggles as they seek a place to stay. Stephens has a lot of fun with the “Downtown Bethlehem” scene, taking Joseph past a series of shops where he gets rejected every time—the climax being a hot nightclub where Joseph busts a few moves before being called back to Daddy Duty (Parliament gets a nice shout-out here).
Among the bold voices here, Fashad Tyler’s turn as the narrator creates an opportunity for him to raise the roof with his glorious tenor (for “Lift up a Praise” and “Jesus Christ is the Way”) and LaSharon Johnson’s full soprano fills the house and the soul (with “Fear Not” and “Holy”). On the night I was there, Catrina Brenae’s gorgeous voice was allowed to shine as well. And for harmony, you can’t beat Tyler, David Hammett, and Michael Nesbit as the Three Wise Men. Marcel Miller, meanwhile, shows some natural comic skills; when he’s not being upstaged by taller cast members, he suffers the indignities of being the “No-Good Shepherd Boy.”
From the Holy Land, the scene shifts to our own time for Act 2, with the ensemble in modern dress; here Stephens creates a pantomime of two high-schoolers, filled with the enthusiasm and optimism of youth. The home scene is amusing, as their parents insist on playing some classic Gospel numbers; on one level it’s a touching homage to Mahalia Jackson and James Cleveland, but there’s room for first one kid and then the other to roll their eyes and get restless. For this story a robbery and a backpack full of loot also figure prominently; and we follow the moral and spiritual dilemmas of both the robber and the young man who encounters him, which are resolved through their conversion. It’s an acknowledgment of the struggles that plague us still, with a gesture to one very important part of their resolution.
Musical Director William Knowles, who also leads the house band on keyboards, has worked the ensemble into some fine harmony; there is room for each member of the cast to take their turn in the spotlight as soloists as well, working magic with lyrics that navigate between the classic European tradition and our own time and place. Leah Mazur’s set, as suggested by Hughes himself, is a multi-tiered affair, topped off by lighting designer John D. Alexander’s brilliant star (one of several memorable visual cues here).
The good news is that Black Nativity will be playing well past New Year’s, so that even if your calendar is chock-full for the next week or so, there will be plenty of opportunities to be inspired by this production.
Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes with one intermission.
Cast: Kendall Claxton, Marcel Miller, LaSharon Johnson, Tre’mon Mills, Michael Nesbitt-Gaines, Fashad Tyler, David Hammett, Catrina Brenae, Sherice Payne, Jacquelyn Hawkins, André McKamey, Shawna Williams