Black Nativity: A Holiday Concert at Penumbra Theatre

Yolande Bruce in "Black Nativity"

Yolande Bruce in “Black Nativity”

If you see one Christmas show this year, pick Black Nativity: A Holiday Concert. It’s absolutely wonderful, and it will make you feel wonderful, too.

Penumbra Theatre is much more than Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity but it is the show most beloved of this local treasure. This year’s—number thirty-something?—is simply staged in their cozy St. Paul home, with Penumbra’s artistic director Lou Bellamy providing a tasteful narration.

But the music is larger than life, bursting from every singer, tumbling from the on-stage band, soaring up to the lighting slots over our heads and sparkling like stars. It’s all about the music, and the music is so good that I can’t find adjectives good enough to describe it.

Not flawless, but perfectly genuine, real, authentic. I believed every word and note. I love theater like this! Who needs spectacle, when a single voice—Yolande Bruce’s, for example—can lift you right out of your seat? How about a whole choir of otherwise ordinary people (the Fellowship Missionary Baptist church Choir, directed by Bruce) who turn into a heavenly chorus right before your eyes?

Nobody gets more out of a song than soloist Dennis Spears, who frequently had to jump to his feet and join the choir. Yes, he could allow a phrase to “breathe” now and then, and just let the song speak, but a solo such as I Wonder as I Wander was beautiful and stirring in its simplicity.

Greta Oglesby was cast in the show, but for this performance, at least, was replaced by Latonia Hughes-Kendrick.  (Who wouldn’t look forward to another captivating performance by Oglesby? I know I was!) But there was no reason for disappointment. Although Hughes-Kendrick doesn’t have quite the presence that Oglesby has, she’s got a voice that simply amazes.  And once she warmed up, there was no need for acting. Someplace inside of her powered that voice and it was unstoppable—a gospel coloratura, like Bruce. Two of them! Side by side! Wow!

While these were billed as the stars of the show—and they were—it was the “heavenly chorus” that provided the structure capable of carrying the weight of all those notes out front. Two of their own stepped out to solo, as well, and did more than hold their own with the “names.”

Don’t You Want My Light, Send One Angel Down, Go Tell It on the Mountain and a screaming fast Mary, What You Gonna Call the Baby are among the songs helping to tell the story.

Music director Sanford Moore anchored the accompaniment at the keyboard, backed by one tight, rockin’ band: Lee Gatlin on organ, Steve Jennings on percussion, Jay Young, III on bass, and Steve Jennings, who dazzled us with a cameo guitar solo on Christ is Born. Maybe not a flawless opening night, but I’ll take music loaded up with heart and soul any day. Just terrific.

This production runs only through December 22, so you’ll need to act fast. Don’t miss it!

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