The music venues on H Street are varied and many. On a given night you’ll hear everything from a symphony to rock n’ roll to bluegrass. This month, the sound coming from the H Street Playhouse is joyful noise.
The Theater Alliance’s production of Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity gives viewers an interpretation of the nativity story that’s more energetic, kinetic and praise-filled than any other holiday production this reviewer has seen. This is not The Nutcracker, and while sugarplums dance at the Kennedy Center, the H Street Playhouse reverberates with a robust blend of voices, modern dance and jubilant call and response praise songs.
Hughes is known predominantly as a poet, journalist and novelist, and also wrote more than twenty plays and musicals. Black Nativity, first produced in 1961, chronicles the birth of Christ, as told in the Gospel of Saint Luke, from a black perspective, through music, dance and narrative. The story, here set in Africa, is familiar, but the music, performed by a live band riffing from blues, gospel, jazz and even traces of Motown, brings a new freshness to the story that my seven-year old friend described as “awesome.” This production features more than 30 gospel songs, including emotional reworkings of traditional Christmas carols.
Dancer Alvin Ailey was part of the original 1961 cast, and dancers Avalon Bobb-Brown and Rodni Williams carry the mantle well. Their stylized and tormented portrayal of rejection felt by Mary and Joseph as they sought shelter honestly capture the panic of the expectant family finding themselves ignored by society. Bobb-Brown’s passion and easy grace that fills the stage during dance segments also makes watching her role in the chorus a must. The measured strength and poise with which Willams depicts Joseph was learned during his work with many dance companies, among them the Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Ailey School. I only wish the script provided more opportunities to highlight these two performers’ gifts.
While the dance and dramatic renditions are peppered throughout Black Nativity, the success of the performance is totally dependent on the strength of the singers. While a “Joy to the World” and “We Three Kings” make an appearance, the production replaces many traditional hymns and spirituals, such as “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” with contemporary gospel music, like “Now Behold the Lamb,” and “We Worship You.”
Among the cast are performers who have graced the stage everywhere from the Apollo Theatre to Arena Stage to the DC Fringe Festival to the White House and churches across the city. Among the male singers are two pastors, an elder and two self-described preachers’ kids. Reverend David Kevin North’s vocal vigor shines especially in the second set when the story shifts to a modern-day musical history of African American spiritual music. Donning sunglasses, some of the singers take the stage as the Blind Boys of Alabama, and Betty A. Carter brings her vocal chops to a portrayal of Mahalia Jackson. In fact, each time standout Carter stepped forward, I waited expectantly to hear the power and soul of her last number repeated, and she did not disappoint.
Black Nativity, which runs through January 3, is a joyful way to celebrate the season, and the energy-filled performance makes it a good match for theatre goers of all ages. See here for details.