WASHINGTON, December 20, 2014 – Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity is the famous writer’s unique re-telling of the birth of Jesus Christ with an entirely black cast. A revival of Hughes’ classic musical drama is now making the holiday rounds. Having launched first at Bowie State University in Washington’s suburban Gold Coast of Bowie, Maryland, this Theater Alliance production is now being staged at the Anacostia Playhouse in Southeast D.C.
Hughes’ original drama was first performed Off-Broadway at the Lincoln Theatre in December of 1961, just six years before his death in 1967. A film version directed by Kasi Lemmons and starring Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett was released as recently as November of 2013, a testament to the staying power of this powerful classic, which has been traditionally performed across the U.S. each year.
Whether it’s staged in Boston, Seattle, Washington D.C. or anywhere in between, Black Nativity today remains a Christmas standard as popular in the black community as The Nutcracker ballet is for American families, aspiring ballet dancers and ballet fans young and old.
The current area Theater Alliance revival of this play is directed by local legend Eric Ruffin. A BFA graduate of Howard University with an MFA in Directing from Rutgers, he’s well-known for his work at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts.
Ruffin brings a contemporary twist to the nativity theme, transitioning the balanced ensemble of 12 singers and dancers from traditional BC period costuming—with the added twist of three Wise Men attired in African inspired robes—to a surprising second act explosion, featuring a contemporary gospel choir and an array of front pews populated by church ladies adorned with flamboyant crowns.
The ensemble cast had the audience rocking and swaying to the infectious rhythms of “The Blood of Jesus” as they lost themselves in the happy dance and praise music of a country revival.
Originally performed in New York with as many as 160 singers of all ages on stage, the current Anacostia Playhouse production is perfectly scaled to that building’s more intimate quarters. Up-close seating is arrayed on three sides of the theater space, serving to frame the corner arches and the Star of Bethlehem centerpiece that make the audience feel an immediate part of the performance.
In addition to Eric Ruffin’s crisp direction, this production’s Grammy-nominated music director e’Marcus Harper-Short adds his his gospel creds to his interpretation of the musical score. With experienced gained from his stint as a touring member of Rev. James Cleveland’s and Aretha Franklin’s entourage back home to D.C., he blends his skills with the choreography of Princess Mhoon to maximize the vocal and visual impact of Alliance’s perfectly balanced ensemble.
The principal cast of this production features G. Carlos Henderson—a veteran of four Nativity tours—as Joseph, and Ny’a Johnson as the Virgin Mary. Together, they act out birth of Jesus as local musicians Yoseph Chisholm (bass), Marvin Ford (keyboard) and Jonathan “Footz” Livas (drums) provide a realistic and sometimes literal musical backdrop. An example: almost eerily, the African drums and percussion, visible at rear center stage, rhythmically echo Mary’s contractions as she is about to give birth.
But the night was also made memorable by the sounds, sights and singing of the rest of this ensemble cast, led by Native Washingtonians Krislynn Perry, Shante Moore, Catholic University grad Natasha Gallop, Howard University product Marquis Gibson, Roy Patten and Duke Ellington grads Elton “EJ” Pittman and Jakiya Ayanna.
They were accompanied by the powerful Church “Mother” presence of sacred singer Thomascena Nelson and the “Father Figure” of veteran stage, screen and television performer Addison Switzer. Many will recognize Switzer for his two year stint on HBO’s gritty, Baltimore-based cops and politics-based series “The Wire” (2002-2007) along with additional HBO credits for his role in VEEP.
Also joining the local talent in this production is “American Idol,” “Star Search” and “The Voice” veteran Jason Johnson, whose towering presence brought the house down as one of the Three Wise Men serenading the birth of Christ.
However, for pure Pentecostal energy and style Krislynn “Krissi” Perry’s fiery red bush-top, adorned with a stylish feather accessory, stood out among the sisters and their church crowns. In her solo rendition of “The Blood of Jesus,” she broke out her happy dance as the amply-endowed front row ladies fanned themselves furiously while others in the back row raised their hands to acknowledge the presence of the Spirit.
Theater Alliance’s production of Black Nativity scores a winning four out of four star rating for its highly energetic yet movingly inspirational ensemble performance.
The only distraction we encountered during the performance we attended was the occasional sound system reverb in the Anacostia Theater black box performance space where the show was performed. When that distraction randomly kicked in, the musicians, dancers and singers, to their great credit, never winced, flinched or missed a beat.
Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)
Theater Alliances’ production of Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity continues its holiday season run through January 4, 2015 at the Anacostia Playhouse on Shannon Place, SE, located at the foot of the new 11th Street Bridge connection from Capitol Hill.
Additional events: The Alliance will also host a special Holiday Party on December 18, an American Sign Language performance of Black Nativity on December 27, and a “Radical Neighboring” program throughout, offering a small number of “Name Your Own Price” tickets for unsold seats to local patrons an hour before each performance.
For tickets and information, and to learn more about The Theater Alliance’s mission, and production of Black Nativity, please visit TheaterAlliance.com.