- Karamu's dazzling production energizes the holiday season.
'Tis the season for familiar and heartwarming holiday melodies. But alas, repeated exposure can cause even Bing Crosby's intoxicating croon of "White Christmas" to go as flat as unspiked eggnog. That's why Langston Hughes' Black Nativity, originally developed in 1961, is such a refreshing change from the music-box regularity of other tuneful entertainments. By putting gospel songs and singers in the spotlight to show off the expressive improvisations and foot-stomping energy this idiom provides, Hughes created a rich theatrical platform that can be embellished by innovative directors and performers alike.
Karamu Theatre's 19th version of this engaging show features a cast that sparkles under the direction of Terence M. Greene. While a couple of the individual voices are outstanding, the passion all the singers bring to more than 21 songs is thoroughly captivating. Add to that some dazzling modern dance and eye-popping costumes, and you have yourself one crackling fine production.
The first act -- narrated in properly stentorian tones by Reggie Scott -- tells the traditional story of the birth of Christ from a black perspective, with Joseph and Mary played by nonspeaking dancers: Michael Medcalf and Natasha Lee Colon of the Cleveland Contemporary Dance Theatre. But the absence of words is never missed as Medcalf communicates frustration, anger, and ultimate joy through his lithe, powerful movement (when he mimes pounding on door after door, looking for a room for his pregnant wife, you might swear you can hear the knocking). And Colon is equally riveting as she writhes in the agony of labor pains, twisting and collapsing to the beat of the gospel soundtrack.
And, oh, what music this is! Combining the deeply rooted power of old-time spirituals with jazz-like improvisational riffs and the call-and-response vigor of revival meetings, these songs cut through to emotions that are nearly inaccessible through any other medium. When Jesus is born, the rousing "Now Behold the Lamb" is passed from one singer to another (Bianca Jenkins to Ra-Deon Kirkland to Garry Gross to Tiffany Renee Allison), each voice adding a fresh layer of tribute and glory to this most sacred moment. Then the somewhat contemplative mood kicks into high gear when Scott leads the ensemble in the hand-clapping, arm-waving "Great Is the Lord." While many of these tunes are new to those who don't frequent African American churches, the music immediately communicates on both intellectual and visceral levels.
The first act ends with a beautifully staged tableau, as various people from greater Bethlehem and visiting dignitaries visit the manger. The trio of wealthy kings (Gross, Syrmylin Cartwright, and Shamir Oglesby) give a smooth performance on "We Three Kings" and "Trust in the Lord." Soon, the stage is filled with common folk bearing large baskets laden with bread, fabric, and other homely treasures. As they sing "O Come All Ye Faithful" in their sumptuous, celebratory robes, one suddenly realizes the true meaning of an old Christmas carol.
In the second act, everything changes, as we are transported to a contemporary black church where a Sunday service is in progress -- a bit of time travel that completes the spiritual circle. This half of the show has its high points -- particularly Morris A. Cammon as a frank-speaking congregant and James Smith, who plays an elderly man who barely can shuffle except when the music hits him and he gets happy feet. Lilly A. Elkins also provides a heartfelt rendering of "Holy Spirit, Rain Down on Me." The energy and drive of the first act, however, is never equaled here, in part because director Greene keeps the animated preacher (Scott) tucked far upstage, where his magnetic stage presence is dissipated. Furthermore, there is no real story line -- it's just a glimpse into the kind of storefront church that has served the urban African American community since the Depression.
But the talented cast carries the day, with Kirkland and Allison lighting up the stage with their charismatic smiles and splendid pipes. The spirit of this church-bound setting is also enhanced by six young dancers from the Cleveland School of the Arts (Ravin Cunningham, Nikeshia Kelly, Bryan E. Marshall, Chanel Miller, Nehemiah C. Spencer, and Sierra Woods), who provide lively and youthful counterpoint to the church regulars. Spontaneous applause and rhythmic clapping from the audience often erupts in the middle of songs, lending a feeling of verisimilitude to the proceedings. In other words, this is one damn fine church, and you just wish you could attend every week.
Gospel music is one of the finest expressions of the Christian idea of salvation and hope, overlaid with the emotions of people within a loving and supportive community. Black Nativity provides a joyous firsthand experience of that mind-set -- without any of the hate and exclusion that is passing for religious devotion these days. And for that we should all say, Amen!