Austin Playhouse at Penn Field, through Dec. 18
Running time: 1 hr, 20 min
A lowly birth. That aspect of the Christmas story is as familiar to us as our own names. We know about the long road to Bethlehem for Joseph and Mary, who was heavy with child, and how there was no room for them at the inn and how Jesus came into this world in a stable, among the livestock. We know it, but how often do we feel it, feel the weight of the young couple's fatigue, their poverty, their need, and the pain at being refused and rejected? Likely few of us feel it often enough, which may be cause enough to visit ProArts Collective's new staging of Black Nativity. In the show's opening scenes, the eight-person ensemble is dressed in dust-colored, ragged clothing, like refugees, the downtrodden, the poorest of the poor. They take poses of grief and suffering and despair, and they sing of great trials and woes, and it settles in your heart, this heaviness, this feeling that these are a people who know what it is to be denied shelter, to be turned away from the door. These people whose skin is dark and rich are intimate with the sorrows of the world.
This closeness, this deep connection to human poverty, so keenly felt in this production, is so crucial to understanding the power of Christmas, of God coming to earth as one of us, in the humblest way possible. It is His experience of that which paves the way for His later role as savior of all humankind. As created by the poet Langston Hughes, Black Nativity binds this sense of Christ's story to the African-American experience through the music that has sustained this race through much of the last few centuries binding the Gospel to gospel. It's a simple way of retelling the familiar story, but its riches are many.
ProArts has been staging this work for several Decembers now, under the direction of the late Boyd Vance. Jason Ansara Brooks takes the directorial reins this year, and his approach is likewise simple, allowing the words and music and the power of the performers to carry us along. From the prologue, "Come Ye Disconsolate," sung last weekend by Jacqui Cross in majestic voice, through the rousing finale, "How Shall I Send Thee," led by an exuberant Denice Brooks, the production saturates the Christmas story in rich emotion.
That is especially true in the second half of the show, which focuses on the transformation wrought by the coming of Christ. Once they hit the number "I Know I've Been Changed," the cast trades in its tattered outfits for dashiki caftans, each one a different color: the blue of the sky, the gold of wheat, the orange of sunrise. Indeed, it is a new day, and from this point on, the show takes on a jubilant shine, with the musical numbers more often than not powered along by the clapping of hands. The singers carry us up into the clouds.
As they sing of the rewards in heaven, one's thoughts turn naturally to Vance, the founder of ProArts, who died this spring. This is the company's first production of Black Nativity without him the program notes it is lovingly dedicated to him which means ProArts is undergoing its own transformation. How heartening it is to find it doing so with such spirit, making a joyful noise. God bless you, Boyd.
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