Written by Harlem Renaissance author Langston Hughes, Black Nativity premiered Off Broadway in December of 1961. It has since become a holiday staple of schools, churches, and community theaters in countries around the world. The Justice Theatre Project has just mounted its sixth annual production of Black Nativity on Dec. 17-19 in Stewart Theatre in N.C. State University’s Talley Student Union in Raleigh.
With only limited alterations, Black Nativity follows the New Testament version of the Christmas Story. You’ve likely heard it: angels, wise men, camels, no room at the inn, swaddling clothes, a manger, and the Baby Jesus. Much of Hughes’ text is taken directly from the Bible, the major change being the addition of a scene in which local shepherds converse about faith and their Eternal Reward. Otherwise, Langston Hughes doesn’t really get much credit for this one, considering how much of the piece has changed over the years.
The scenes of Act One (The Nativity) are interspersed with with songs, ranging from the oldest Christian traditional hymns (“O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” sung with tremendous strength by Allen Brown) to recent popular music (MercyMe’s “I Can Only Imagine,” performed with beautiful simplicity by Vincent Bland).
Other standout performances come from Chanda Branch and Jamal Farrar (“Mary Did You Know?”) and Loretta Vinson and Kathleen Jacob’s mash-up of “Still, Still, Still” and “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” — one of two pieces in JTP’s production that combine both European and African musical perspectives.
Jade Arnold serves as our narrator, keeping the show moving forward with the usual story points (“And there were in that same country Shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night…”) but also a welcome sense of humor and lightness that makes him immediately likeable. Terra Hodge shows off solid acting skills as the in-labor Virgin Mary herself.
Director Deb Royals finds opportunities for humor in the piece — highlighted by the Three Wise Men’s dance, featuring Vincent Drayton, David Thomas, and Sheldon Mba (whose athletic dances help give the production much of its life).
Deb Royals and Jeffrey Nugent have designed a simple and functional set, which serves both as manger and choir risers and which is beautifully lit by Tom Wolf and E. Renee Eisenhour, who also designed sound, which was also strong, though having the actors mic’d should also be used during dialogue scenes, since it is difficult to hear some lines through the large crowd of performers.
Brenda Hayes’ costumes are the show’s visual highlight and reinforce the influence of African art on the piece. These costumes emphasize the kinetic choreography of Dr. Chuck Davis, Ivy Burch, and the African American Dance Ensemble — another highlight of the show.
The real star of this production is music director, pianist, and vocalist Carolyn Colquitt, who directs the band and the choir with passion and joy, while playing the piano masterfully, nonstop, throughout the show with only a rare, cursory glance at the sheet music. Likewise, her multi-skilled band (Rick Lindsay, Sam Peterkin, Bradley Simmons, and Fred Wilson) pack a real punch.
The duty of directing two songs is taken on by Dr. B. Angeloe Burch, Sr., whose frenetic and lyrical conducting of the choir during Act Two’s “Let Everything That Hath Breath” is the high water mark of the production’s excitement.
Act Two can catch an unsuspecting audience off-guard. JTP’s production of Black Nativity ends after Act One, and there does not appear much else to say or do. After Intermission, the audience experiences a Justice Theatre Project praise-and-worship service, akin to a Christmas morning service at a black church.
This is a welcome experience to a suspecting audience — and likely to a Christian audience caught by surprise. But to those who may not want to go to church (literally and/or figuratively), you may wish to scoot out after the intermission, as about 20 percent of the audience on Friday night did.
However, they missed some of the evening’s musical highlights: Allen Brown’s call-to-worship, “The Presence of the Lord Is Here,” Connie McCoy’s staggeringly heartfelt “Changed,” and Jade Arnold’s impassioned “Call Him Up,” all backed by the show’s strong choir.
Act Two’s musical climax is an arrangement of “Total Praise,” conducted by Dr. Burch and featuring an emotional gospel mime performance by Christopher Bailey and Tieshya Coleman.
Though The Nativity is well-worn territory, the fusion of gospel music, African dance, jazz poetry, gospel mime ministry, African drumming, and African dress make Black Nativity a definitively unique experience. The music is strong and the show is beautifully designed. Audiences may differ on their level of appreciation for JTP’s second act, but the majority of Saturday night’s audience was extremely passionate and audibly enthusiastic to be “taken to church.”
SECOND OPINION: Dec. 14th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/black-nativity/Event?oid=5087305.
The Justice Theater Project presents BLACK NATIVITY at 4 and 8 p.m. Dec. 18 7 p.m. Dec. 19 in Stewart Theatre on the second floor of the Talley Student Union, 2610 Cates Ave., Raleigh, NC 27695, on the N.C. State University campus.
TICKETS: $27 ($22 students, seniors, and active-duty military personnel), except $18 per ticket for groups of 10+.
NOTE: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 19th, performance.
Black Nativity (1961 Off-Broadway musical): http://www.blacknativity.org/ (National Center of Afro-American Artists), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/Production/3936 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Nativity (Wikipedia).
Langston Hughes (poet and playwright, 1902-67): http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/langston-hughes (Poets.org), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/1557 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Langston_Hughes (Wikipedia).
Deb Royals (director): https://www.facebook.com/deb.royals (Facebook page).
Dr. Charles “Chuck” Davis (choreographer): http://www.africanamericandanceensemble.org/chuck_davis.htm (African-American Dance Ensemble bio).
Carolyn Colquitt (musical director): https://www.facebook.com/carolyn.colquitt (Facebook page).
EDITOR’S NOTE: Dustin K. Britt is a Triangle native, holds a master’s degree in special education from East Carolina University, and teaches locally. He can be spotted all over the Triangle area either painting scenery or chewing o n it. He has received local theater award nominations for doing both. He is a devoted cinephile and author of Hold the Popcorn, a movie blog on Facebook. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment He can also be found via his official Facebook page and on Twitter @dkbritt85.