insightful in-depth reviews

1, Dec 2015
| Photo Credit: by Matthew J Photography

Black Nativity is joyous holiday entertainment

by Steve Cohen
The Cultural Critic

The most fun you’re likely to have this Christmas season is attending Black Nativity in a new production at Theatre Horizon.

It takes our thoughts away from shopping and focuses on religious faith, inspiring music and spectacular dancing. Black Nativity blends African traditions with the biblical Christmas story. The play itself is free-form, encouraging innovative movements, and that’s what we see from a group of performers who don’t normally receive as much public attention as they deserve.

Kingsley Ibeneche, who plays Joseph; Sanchel Brown, who plays Mary; Angelica Jackson as the narrator; Nastassja Baset, Candace Benson, Timotheus “Moe” Peay, Kayla Tarpley, Devon Eric Taylor and Adam Hoyak make this production a showcase for their singing and dancing talents. Trumpeter Will Brock arranged the score and leads a three-piece band that features breathtaking African drumming.

Theatre Horizon continues its involvement with community that earned the company a Barrymore Award by presenting Black Nativity with a mostly-black cast and an assemblage of church choirs.

Langston Hughes wrote the original scenario, and it’s been revised through the years by Walter Dallas and by Ozzie Jones at Freedom Theatre. Jones came back to direct this production. Musically, Black Nativity contains a grab-bag of traditional carols, chants, gospel, and original songs.

“Joy to the World” was sung in its old familiar style with ethereal harmonies, although I would have preferred it with some African soul. Later in the show there’s plenty of that, plus New Orleans-style jazz as the band and cast members parade through the audience. A variety of local church choirs alternate at different performances by adding their rich sounds.

The nimble cast take turns displaying energetic, acrobatic movements with leaps, twists and taps. These performances made the show worthwhile even for audience members who are not Christian.

Dramatically, Black Nativity is extremely simple. What suspense can one feel about the birth of a baby, even Jesus? One striking image was the pulling of a brightly colored pillow from Mary’s gown, illustrating the delivery of the baby. When one considers the stories of the two most important Christian holidays, certainly there’s more theatricality in the Easter narrative of trial, crucifixion and resurrection. Lazarus, Unstoned, one of the last productions by Freedom Theatre, effectively demonstrated that in 2004. (I’d love to see that pageant revived.)

This version of Black Nativity made up for its lack of drama by devoting Act II to a depiction of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It was touching to see parishioners praising God for bringing them through the storm alive, rather than cursing God for inflicting the storm upon them. Their deep faith was inspiring.

Jenn Rose’s choreography was passionate. Set designer Brian Dudkiewicz and visual artist Theodore A. Harris provided colorful surroundings.

See other reviews on The Cultural Crtic.