Black Nativity by Penumbra Theatre

Dennis W. Spears in Black Nativity.

Dennis W. Spears and ensemble in Black Nativity. Photo by Allen Weeks.

If you find your seasonal liturgy lacking in energy, or you need a kick in the pants to get in the Christmas spirit, Penumbra Theatre’s Black Nativity will likely do the trick. The production, the company’s 28th rendition to date, is a family tradition for many and serves as a apt welcome to the holiday season. One part Christ birth narrative, one part interpretive dance, and ten parts gospel music celebration, the show provides an attractive and joyous alternative to the area’s competing perennial offerings.

Simply staged, the show is primarily a concert experience for lead vocalists Jamecia Bennett and Dennis W. Spears, who are bolstered by a small but spirited choir, enthusiastically conducted by occasional soloist Yolande Bruce, and an onstage band. Songs are given structure and context by interspersed readings of Langston Hughes poetry and Bible passages, and the production also amplifies two songs with accompanying dances (choreographed by Uri Sands) representing the plight of Mary and Joseph, performed beautifully by Taylor Collier and Randall Riley.

Bennett’s vocals are truly powerful and are undoubtedly the highlight of the show, and she is given ample opportunity to command the stage. Truth be told, her vocals are so impressive that they overshadow the otherwise respectable efforts of her counterpart Spears, who unfortunately begins the show on a bit of a low note, but grows increasingly jaunty as the show progresses. Apart from their vocals, the two leads present quite different personalities as performers, which at times results in the show feeling disjointed. As an audience member, it is at times hard to know exactly how to approach the proceedings.

The story is touching, familiar, and heartfully narrated by director Lou Bellamy, but the narrative is thin. Bellamy’s direction emphasizes the actual birth of Christ, and the momentous event indeed feels climactic, but the show otherwise is a bit jumbled, with very little rhythm to the proceedings—instead of crescendos and decrescendos, songs are jarring contrasts; either high energy or ballads.

That being said, such criticisms feel truly out of place. The point of Black Nativity is to provide a communal experience; an opportunity to worship and find joy in Christ’s birth, the narrative that provides the grounding for the Christmas holiday. Fittingly, there is a call toward the end of the performance to join in and sing in a widely beloved carol.

Due to its overtly religious leanings, the show will likely not thrill non-Christian audiences (although non-Christian fans of gospel music should certainly attend), but for those looking for a lively welcome to a season of Christian remembrance and worship, and who have some energy themselves to bring to the proceedings, this will be well worth the trip.

David and Chelsea Berglund review movies at their site Movie Matrimony.


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