Thursday, December 2, 2021

"Black Nativity" at Penumbra Theatre

Another holiday* tradition is back this year - Penumbra Theatre's joyful production of Langston Hughes' Black Nativity. They've been doing this show for over 30 years now, and this version is very similar to what I saw three years ago. It's a wonderful tradition that fills the soul; recommended if you've never seen it before, or if you've seen it a dozen times. Continuing through Christmas Eve at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul.

What follows is what I wrote about the 2018 production, with a few updates.

Black Nativity is the traditional nativity story as expressed through black culture, starting with the text by the great African American poet Langston Hughes. Read by narrator Jennifer Whitlock in short phrases or longer stanzas between the songs, his words are poetic and powerful, casting this familiar (to those of us who grew up in the Christian tradition) story in a new light. Or rather, a new Blackness. The story of a young couple in need turned away from a fancy hotel, told "there's no room for you here," takes on a different meaning when it's a Black couple. The nativity is a beautiful story that has been told in many ways for thousands of years, inspiring people around the world, as it continues to do here.

The nativity story is also expressed through music and dance. Led by music director Sanford Moore on keyboard, the gospel music is enough to raise the rafters of Penumbra's intimate theater space. Featuring a five-piece band, an five-person choir from Kingdom Life Church in Robbinsdale (including #TCTheater fave Brandon A. Jackson) directed by soloist g'Beau Washington, and featured singers and #TCTheater favorites Greta Oglesby and Dennis W. Spears, the songs fit the stages of the story being told, and further express the joyful spirit of the story. Some are familiar to me (including "I Wonder as I Wander," "Go Tell It On the Mountain," and "The Little Drummer Boy"), but more are unfamiliar to me. And while the details of the theology expressed may not match my personal theology, I appreciate the joy and faith behind it. There's nothing like a gospel choir (with a few singalong moments) to life one's spirits.

This year's show features new choreography by Leslie Parker, with our Mary and Joseph (Rahila Coats and Ezra Frazier) expressing the nativity story through dance in a couple of songs. Their movement is so raw and urgent, jerky at times, shaky at times, graceful at times, fierce and powerful at times, really taking us through all of the emotions of the story.

The world today often seems like a hopeless and helpless place (even more so now than three years ago, with bad news every time you turn on the TV). Black Nativity reminds us of the troubles we've lived through (and more specifically, that the African American community has lived through), and offers an unfailing hope and belief in the goodness that exists in the world and the better days to come.

The joyful noise of Black Nativity continues at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul through December 24.

*You can read about all of the holiday shows I've seen here.