Black Nativity Now
nytheatre.com review by Matt Roberson
December 4, 2010
Ask anyone what Christmas truly means and you’re likely to hear groans about airport delays, last-minute budget busters, and dinner table standoffs. For all the talk about cheer and goodwill toward men (and presumably, women), the truth remains: Christmas time in America is a disaster. We even fight over what to call it, as if that would make the last month of the year any less difficult. Whether or not you believe the story that is The Nativity, the themes of family, joyful celebration, and new beginnings are important ones, and very relevant. Getting you to consider these, at least for 75 minutes, is at the heart of Black Nativity Now.
Featuring traditional gospel songs and words by Langston Hughes, Black Nativity is a pageant-style presentation of the birth of Jesus that is a Christmas tradition among many black churches and theatres throughout America. Black Nativity Now is an update of this popular work. The dialogue is more contemporary, and an exciting, original score has been provided by Kelvyn Bell (whose work in Supreme Tartuffe was also impressive). Set in a church, the evening is presided over by a Bishop (Nikkieli DeMone), who with great charm and energy guides us, the congregation, though the classic tale.
There is much to love about Black Nativity Now. The music, arranged by Bell and performed by a talented team, is joyful and moving. Bell also begins the show with a solo performance of traditional gospel music, a stripped-down and heartfelt tribute to the music of his family’s past. Also strong are the performances of Alfred Preisser’s cast. There are some terrific voices on display, including that of Jeff Bolding, who has clearly benefited from his time spent with the world famous choir at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. Also noteworthy are the portrayals of Mary and Joseph by Breanna Bartley and Jarvis Manning, Jr. As a couple, Bartley and Manning exude a youthful vibrancy normally unseen in these characters. In the nativity story, Mary and Joseph are young, running for their lives and on the cusp of a major change in life (messiah or not, a newborn is a big deal!). That director Alfred Preisser recognized this in his production is an important, and successful, choice. His selection of Tracy Jack as choreographer is also a smart one. Mary’s labor scene, portrayed through dance, is the most dramatically successful and emotionally moving moment of the play.
If Black Nativity Now falls short, it is in the moments when the music stops, and the preaching begins. While it’s understood that we, the audience, are in church, Preisser spends too much time telling through words what is more deeply communicated through music and movement. I understand the reason for this, as it provides many of us with a Christmas experience we may not have had before. If you didn’t grow up in a black church, you’ve probably never seen an authentic Black Nativity performed. Dramatically speaking however, the overly-verbal moments of the play slow down what is otherwise a forward moving, well-paced production.
Perhaps most problematic for me was a scene in which stories of terrorism and destruction from the Middle East are read. The answers to this misery, the play implies, are found in the story of Jesus’s birth. It’s a major statement that the play is not set up to deal with or support. It also seems contradictory to offer the story of Christ as an aid to a region that has, in many ways, been torn apart and divided by religion.
There are a lot of ways you can spend your holidays. In a line. Drinking glug till you pass out. Wrestling grandpa. The choice is yours. But if I can make a suggestion, pay a visit to the moving gospel music being played and sung at Black Nativity Now. It may not make a convert out of you, but it will certainly make you clap, and hopefully, consider more seriously what really matters during the holiday season.