Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Heather Barfield Cole, Fri., Dec. 19, 2003
Black NativityHyde Park Theatre, through Dec. 21
Running time: 1 hr., 30 min.
It's sometimes really hard to find a reason to be happy during the holiday season. Family matters can be burdensome and taxing to the spirit. Money problems can trouble people who feel obligated to buy presents when they simply can't afford them. Sacrifices are made in order to muster a smile from the downtrodden. People give without giving back to themselves, and this makes it all the more difficult to be happy. Singing, clapping hands, closing eyes to wonder, and swaying to the music are some ways to express jubilation and joy. Writing about the birth of Christ in a "black" way is what Langston Hughes did, and ProArts Collective combines expressive praise in gospel with Hughes' musical play Black Nativity. It's easy to have a good time when voices are glorifying divinity -- those voices are sharp and resonant, vibrating the room with an energy and passion that lifts the soul and gets the feet tapping.
The first act is a combination of song and narration; the second act is similar to a rousing church service. Between songs, Hughes' eloquent text is read by actors in front of music stands. The stage is bare, the singers wear simple black costumes with head scarves, and everything is minimal except the music. Each melody busts through the space with richness and flavor. Director Boyd Vance brings the ensemble together with staging that flows, using strong positions at a song's climax.
At the Hyde Park Theatre, the stage is so close to the audience, it's easy to get swept up in familiar hymns like "Joy to the World" and "O Come All Ye Faithful." Those songs can be so fun to sing. It is unfortunate that the marketing of Christmas has overexposed such celebratory songs, using them to sell products. But with live gospel, everything about the season has meaning again. "Go Tell It on the Mountain" is a shout-out to the world about new hope, a change, and the possibility of a better world. Boyd Vance, Maurice Moore, and Curtis Polk unravel with style the hip beats of "No Good Shepherd Boy," and Sheila King Knight shows all her vocal grandeur in the redemption song "Changed." Vance is often seen still directing throughout the show, instructing Dawn Williams Ross to take her time before she sings the sentimental and truth-telling lyrics of "Brand New Life." Interweaving hardships and pain with forgiveness and compassion is not only a religious experience, it is part of being human, and it's sentimental.
Tears of elation can swell during this show because something good is happening, no matter what religious affiliation you may have -- a reminder that giving thanks is essential to personal happiness. It is very clear that Black Nativity isn't quite theatre, and it isn't quite church. It's a celebratory presentation of both that includes Langston Hughes' historical contribution to American and black culture, the appreciation of gospel music, and gratitude to God (or the immanence of life).