By Chris Lane
By Olivia Flores Alvarez
By Angelica Leicht
By Jef Rouner
By Jef With One F
By Jef With One F
By Marco Torres
Since its creation in 1961, Langston Hughes's Black Nativity has become the theatrical equivalent of fruitcake: It comes back every year, no matter how bad it is. December just wouldn't be the same without it. More pageant than play, the thin script tells two Christmas stories that are -- as griot/narrator Shirley Whitmore explains -- "connected by the light of angels." As one might guess from the title, the first tale is the birth of Christ rendered in a pastiche of song, dance and pantomime, with a little old-fashioned storytelling thrown in for clarity's sake.
At The Ensemble Theatre, where Hughes's holiday horse is running, director Marsha Jackson-Randolph establishes old Jerusalem through costume. Designer Josh Jordan has fashioned tunics and flowing pants from silky saffron- and scarlet-colored fabrics. And as the large cast begins to wander out onto the tiny proscenium stage while the lights come up, there is something ancient and gorgeous about it all. But the opening number, "O Come Let Us Adore Him," performed with arms waving in unison as the singers pantomime the words to the tune, establishes the Sunday-go-to-meeting, pursed-lip prissiness that weaves in and out of the production. The cramped confines of the Ensemble's stage force the cast into choirlike tiers. And there is an almost puritanical seriousness in their faces that returns song after song, turning the evening into something that feels more like church than theater.
Hughes's attempt to retell the nativity with a word-for-word literalness undermines much of the miraculous nature of the tale. Mary (Kantaki Washington) and Joseph (Vincent James), who never speak, pantomime through their troubles as they look for a room. People wave their hands and stomp their feet at the sad couple. In "No Room," Rita Falana becomes the mean inn-keeper and sing-shouts at the couple to go away. The cast strolls through the streets of Bethlehem asking, "Mary, Mary, what you gonna name your little baby?" A hugely pregnant Mary dances -- as in twirling, leaping and raising her long, dancerly leg high into the air -- as she moves about the streets of Bethlehem, demonstrating her woe over the fact that nobody will give her a room. Little is left to the imagination.
One of the strangest moments is the dramatization of a miracle. Three angels (April Sloan-Hubert, Joan Hubert and Della Banks) announce the birth of Christ to lowly shepherds in the field. Looking very Wagnerian in sky-blue caftans and enormous wing-shaped hats, the angels sing "unto you a savior is born" in high soprano voices, flapping their caftaned arms up and down through the song. In fact, they continue flapping through the rest of the act. The true marvel -- that they can keep their arms up and moving for so long -- has little to do with the wonder of angels.
Even more amazing, Christ is actually born on stage while Mary does a sort of writhing, squatting, back-to-the-audience dance to show all the pain she's in (and to flatten her belly). These absurd images do nothing to inspire the sort of awe the birth of Christ ought to.
The trouble is not with the performers. In fact, early on, in a number called "Bethelehemu," the cast joyously leaps through Cherita D. Judson and G. Carlos Henderson's choreography with a burst of inspired electricity. But it vanishes as soon as the song does. Most of the remaining scenes are bogged down in the laborious attempt to render the miracle of Christmas in mundane detail.
The second act is more successful, mostly because the skeleton story doesn't intrude too much on the music. Jackson-Randolph has adapted Hughes's script to include references to the World Trade Center tragedy, but "the story" essentially is that everybody gets together in a modern-day Harlem church at Christmastime to sing and praise the Lord. To that end there are several terrific numbers. Both funny and inspired is Falana's version of "Leak in This Old Building/Soul Has Got to Move." Her big voice and gorgeous smile light up the place. Also wonderful is Rennette Brown's "Can't Nobody Do Me Like Jesus." Decked out in a bright red dress and a black feathered hat, Brown sparkles with the charm of a lady who looks good and knows it. And the woman belts out a song with the heart this thin show needs more of. Two of the best performances come from the children in the cast, Armani Greer and Jhardon Milton. Extraordinarily gifted, the kids sing and dance like angels. They are the only real miracles in this production.