Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Black Nativity Depicts the Reason for the Season

Joy, Mercy, Compassion, Peace...Couldn't we all use a little more of that these days?

Photo courtesy of the Penumbra Theater.
I have to admit, Christmas is pretty low on my happiness totem pole.

Between the incessant consumerism, revolving door of the same old story, and inevitably problematic weather, I much prefer hiding in my Grinch-cave and waiting out the season to diving into the parties. Which is not to knock people who enjoy it; I know for most, Christmas is the best time of year. More power to you friends, but I'm going to hole up with my eggnog and call it a month.

That being said, it's always nice to see someone give a run at the season that takes a new path.** Such is the case with Black Nativity, now showing at the Penumbra theater.
Photo courtesy of the Penumbra Theater.
Black Nativity is a retelling of the biblical nativity story through 1960s-era Langston Hughes. Set in an almost call-response format (between brief narrations, there are spiritual choral performances), Hughes imbues the story with his trademark cool; there isn't much to the narration, with the exception of a few beautiful poetic interludes. The Penumbra's version is a shortened edit of the original.

The choir, performed here by Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church choir and led by the spunky, fah-bu-lous Yolande Bruce, takes a short while to warm up but then carries the show away. There is a thoughtful mix of traditional Christmas pieces and some jazzier new versions, but the message is conveyed anyway. Each soloist is excellent, particularly Jamecia Bennet, whose Jennifer Hudson-esque voice brings down the house. Dennis Spears is present (as always, in his most distilled self), as is Penumbra founder Lou Bellamy as the narrator.

There is also some gorgeous, heavily Alvin Ailey-inspired choreography from Uri Sands. I found myself wishing there was a lot more of this; Penumbra, in future productions can you please up the dance ante? The contemporary movements were evocative and inspiring, and I'd love to see more.
Photo courtesy of the Penumbra Theater.
For those of us who were raised outside of the African American community, it behooves us to encounter their traditions, particularly in the current political climate. I'm not an explicitly religious person any more, but it was nice to see the familiar story I grew up with presented in a different way. It was also nice to spend a brief moment away from the hurricane of conflict that exists in the world now and simply enjoy an evening celebrating peace, joy, mercy, compassion, and all the other values that are supposed to define us. Lately it seems we could all use a reminder of that.

Black Nativity runs at Penumbra through December 20; click here to get your tickets.

**I do have to make a quick aside: for many of you in the black community this is an annual tradition, which is awesome. This was my first time, so I'm coming at it with fresh eyes - but know that it could get a completely different look depending on who is in the audience.**