In earnest, words don’t do this production justice, but I will try. If Sweet Honey and the Rock met Langston Hughes on a corner in Harlem back in the day, a more soulful production could not have been produced. As fate should have it, Theater Alliance breathes life into this award-winning musical with a stellar ensemble where every member shines—none brighter than the other. The unsuspecting set in a small black theatre foretold no sign of the revival that was to unfold.
The ensemble was majestic in transforming the audience into witnesses, and eventually, participants in a familiar cultural ritual.
Black Nativity, originally written as a play by Langston Hughes, tells the story of the conception and birth of Jesus from the lens of the black experience. Eric Ruffin (director), e’Marcus Harper-Short (musical director) and Princess Mhoon (choreographer) are the three magi offering their gifts in celebration of triumph over the odds. Husky tones from the continent of Africa melted into soulful folk rhythms; jazzy rifts became gospel testimonies in a vivid, ceremonious display of cultural pride, identity and triumph. It’s in the drums, the garb and the faces of the ensemble—it was evident that they were doing more than acting: they were living this story. Channeling.
The dancers, Whitney Hutcherson (Mary) and Darin Turner (Joseph) told the story almost wordlessly with an intimate vulnerability and focused intensity that whispered, “Sacred.” The cast’s movements came to the toes of those seated on the front row in the theatre, where the seats were aligned in a U-shape: each with three rows. With the syncopated rhythm of knee slaps and staffs hitting the floor; the skillful lighting, emphasizing pivotal moments and directing our attention—the small theater seemed to expand and contract in an other-worldly kind of way.
While telling this inspiring well-known story, the production had several humorous points as well. One number about shepherds watching their sheep offered a good dose of adult humor with great taste. The second half of the production took us straight to church, engaging audience members completely. What I loved most was the sincerity and presence in the ensemble. Each member evoked a sense of devotion and wholehearted commitment to not only telling the tale, but connecting with one another and the audience. The only thing missing from the production was a sold-out show. If others knew what we were experiencing, every show would be packed from here on out.
At the end of the production, we were afforded the privilege of shaking the hand of every ensemble member, which was an amazingly personal touch after such an emotional production. I was far from the only one dabbing my eyes at the conclusion. This production is a celebration of life and spirit that is at once essential and timely.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours including a 15-minute intermission.
Advisory: Family friendly.
Black Nativity will run through November 25, 2015 – January 3, 2016, at The Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon PL SE, Washington, DC 20020. For tickets call (202) 241-2539 or click here to purchase online.