In Arts & Entertainment Reviews

"Black Nativity" creates an urban landscape in a jubilee at the Marcus Center. (PHOTO: Jenny Plevin)

"Black Nativity" creates a joyful holiday noise at the Marcus Center

The church doors are open and all are welcome, but be prepared to hold onto your hat, tap your foot, bob your head and even find yourself singing along with the choir.

It's the second year of "Black Nativity," the Langston Hughes play that is being mounted by Black Arts MKE in cooperation with the Marcus Center.

The lovely Wilson Theatre at Vogel Hall turned into a black church when the production, under the joyful and inventive direction of Malkia Stampley, opened Thursday night. The show has more good feeling that just about anything you might see this holiday season.

Stampley, along with music director Antoine Reynolds, has taken a cast of 18 exuberant actors, singers and dancers, given them a familiar story and turned them loose on the stage. It's quite an experience.

The first act opens in an urban setting with the sound of gunshots, sirens and then a mini-riot by the African-American actors. It's a striking of moment of demonstration of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The story soon switches to the arrival in Bethlehem of Joseph and Mary, played by young actors Baylen Stevens and Michaela Usher. The baby is born, the wise men come, the shepherds watch their flock and joy sweeps the land.

The music in the first act is a mix of traditional Christmas carols mixed with a healthy dose of gospel songs.

I have never heard the carol "Joy To The World" sung like this, coming after the murder and the riot. It's slow, almost dirge-like, and full of discordant notes that make it one of the most moving and arresting numbers in the entire show.

The second act is about the spread of God's word throughout the world, the salvation found in him and the life led by those who believe.

Most interesting of all is that the second act begins with two groups of people, the urban youth, full of passion and anger and mourning a slain child, and the older church choir, full of joyful celebration. It seems as if the two groups will never join together, never meet in a place big enough for both of them.

But they do and they answer the question posed by Syd Robinson, who in taking stock of his life in the eyes of God asks, "do we need some repair work done?" The message is clear that we all need some repair work, and it's work born out of love.

There is no doubt that this is an over-the-top religious production, filled with the kind of faith that seems all too rare in this world. The cast, ranging in age from adults to kids who measure their age in single digits, carries the message of holy redemption to the rafters and back.

Reynolds is an inventive arranger and has created a score that is traditional with some parts that are spoken word, some that sound like hip-hop and some that sound like the hosannas of a famed gospel choir. Between the singing and dancing there is little room for, nor little need of, serious acting chops.

This is a musical ride through a story we all know.

Hughes was famed for his poetry, essays and plays that demanded race be considered in the development of any person, black or white. But he always stayed away from the fury that fueled some of the civil rights movement. He supported the Black Panthers, for example, but was disquieted by their anger.

It is only in moments that this play strays from the Hughes who was such a dominating figure in the world of black writers. I understand having the anger as a contretemps with the "joyful noise" of the singers, but it can be a little jarring.

This cast is dominated by women and all of them can sing. But Cynthia Cobb and Krystal Drake, who is new to me, sent chills up and down my spine. Cobb is a powerhouse who rattles the roof with her voice. Drake is a sparkling presence on the stage, singing and dancing and acting with both abandon and marvelous control.

The opening night crowd was enthusiastic but sparse and I hope that more and more people turn out to see the production.

After all, one of the final things to note is the poster carried by a young man in the final moments that reads, "In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends."

The quote is from the "Steeler Lecture" delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King in a sermon in 1967. Good words to live by, indeed.

"Black Nativity" runs through Dec. 11 and information on showtimes and tickets is available here.

Notable:

Black Arts MKE is the guiding spirit behind this production, and Stampley is the artistic director at Bronzeville Arts. The two black theater companies are striving to make their mark and broaden their appeal. This production is a "black play," one that combines all that is great, and expected, by the joyous celebration in gospel churches. I would truly like to see one of our African-American theater groups stage a classic white play, something by Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams or David Mamet.

What I dream of is that an organization like The Rep, which has a serious commitment to diversity, will underwrite a production by a black troupe, paying the actors and giving the kind of support that will enable these fledgling companies to grow and prosper. I can only imagine an African-American experience take on "Glengarry Glen Ross."


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