BWW Reviews: Teco's Modernized, Youthful BLACK NATIVITY is a Resounding Hit
"Tis the Season to be Jolly, Fa La La La La, La La La"...AWWWWW! Bah humbug! Can I be honest here? The period between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day always gives me a serious case of the holiday blues.
Could it be the symbolism of family togetherness of each holiday during those dates, marked by a communal meal as focal point may have something to do with it? The insane nature of consumerism at its WORST, beginning with Black Friday and ending well past the first of January plays a role in my malaise ("I used to work retail seasonally; trust me, I know")?
Or putting up a Christmas tree merely out of habit, knowing full well there will be no children to really bring the spirit of the holiday alive as the little ones do, even though my pooches enjoy the annual rawhide treats waiting for them in their embroidered stockings ("Yes, I am one of those rare black people who are madly in love with their pets and spoil them rotten")?
And let's not forget the predictable televising of Christmas and holiday TV shows like A Christmas Carol and A Miracle on 34th Street, or the popular children's classics like A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus is Comin' To Town, The Year Without a Santa Claus ("I love that one...snickers"), or How the Grinch Stole Christmas ("I wish he would just do it!").
Whatever the reason, I hate this season! A proud and bonafide Ebeneezer Scrouge! The Grinch! Bah HUMBUG!
But even this self-professed Grinch has a soft spot, so when my favorite children's Christmas tale The Little Drummer Boy comes on, I'm fixed in front of the TV like I was as a young boy and often find myself crying because the message in the story transcends a religious and biblical one. It is a story about the best in humanity.
That childlike fascination and sentiment was evoked recently during Teco Theatrical Productions updated and modern version of Langstan Hughes' Black Nativity, produced annually by the company. I have seen many versions of this show (and nearly every one staged by Teco), and I can say with utter confidence this is by far the BEST Nativity I have ever witnessed. It's that good!
I was equally impressed by the diversity of the audience, with a good share of white parents and their children who appeared to enjoy the show. Perhaps productions like this can start to eliminate that dynamic of 11 o'clock am on Sunday morning being the most segregated hour in America.
Director/playwright Selmore Haines, III has done an outstanding job re-creating this timeless piece and makes the story relevant for the 21st century. Gone are the predictable stiff, moving human caricatures known as THE biblical characters (i.e., Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, shepherds, Baby Jesus, and the wisemen).
Actually, the characters are still present but now seen through the eyes of contemporary urban children, who BREATHE life into what had become a very stale, yet reverent story. And when life is seen through the eyes of a child, even stories or lessons we adults view with a huge modicum of seriousness, somehow life becomes magical again.
The production team should be commended for maximizing what is a small performing space and making it feel large, inviting, and colorful. Alfreda Rollins' set design really allowed the performers room to tell the narrative while lighting design by Daniel Bornhorst wrapped the story at various points in majestic silhouettes which moved the story forward (although a couple of times the stage was a tad bit too dark). Cementing the production effort was the superb effort of Michael Hubbard, Jr., who served as Music Director and leader of a 3-piece band.
The story opens with a contemporary gospel ensemble decked out in choir robes, led by the lovely and angelic Deon Q. Sanders, who led one of the A&B selections. The feeling was nice and prepared the audience for the delightful remaining 1st Act that followed.
After the musical number and the children/teens entered the stage one by one, you could FEEL the energy in the room build, never leaving until the last note in the show was complete. As each youth performer, known as the Children of Israel, narrated bits and pieces of the biblical tale in their own unique and engaging style, you couldn't help but to be caught up in the imagery of the storytelling, laced with hip hop slang, lingo, and flair.
First we find Elizabeth and Zacharias (Lizzie B. and Reb'n Z), older cousins of the Virgin Mary, portrayed with excellent comedic timing by Patricia Mays and James Curtis, grappling with the pending birth of their son John the Baptist, with both of them well past their reproductive years. In a neighboring town, Mary and Joseph, played by Kelsi Harris and Albert Wash II, face a similar fate, unsure how to deal with their predicament. Harris was convincing as a contemporary Mary, obsessing over her appearance yet still humble in demeanor. Likewise, Wash had the youthful swagger and posturing of urban males down to a science and together the two performers illustrated the challenges modern youth have with unplanned pregnancies, no different than it was for Joseph and Mary during that ancient time.
Add to the mix youth performers Mia Hendrix, who gave a larger than life portrayal as a Beyonce-esque angel bearing the good news to both women, and Kale Marable as a streetwise angel complete with dark shades who puts the men in check about their role in these unusual births (and kept the audience in stitches!), and you have an enjoyable scene that felt like slapstick comedy reminiscent of the hit comedy I Love Lucy.
While each member of the Children of Israel troupe delivered great performances, in addition to Hendrix and Marable standout performances belonged to Trinity Hill as a fast-talking, smart alec gossip and instigator; Miguel Martinez, who functioned in several roles including a rapping shepherd, complete with L.L. Cool J gold chains; and Larry Johnson, whose lip synch of the old negro standard No Room At The Inn sung by James Cleveland and the Angelic Choir was so ENTERTAINING that if the former gospel legend was still alive, he would be dancing in the aisles.
In Act 2, we find the adults gathered for a good ole fashion church revival, dressed in their best Sunday go-to-meeting clothes and prepared to uplift each other in testimony and in song. But don't expect the same old black Negro spirituals which are typical of a Nativity production, like Go Tell It On The Mountain. With the exception of the Baptist standard Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah, who singer Doris Black-Hubbard put her BIG TOE up in ("sorry, my former protestant affiliation is taking over my catholic roots in this review"), all of the remaining songs were contemporary hits, which made this version of the Nativity more poignant.
Musically, the spotlight belonged to Denise Baker, whose rendition of Break Every Chain had the audience in full participatory mode, including this critic. Baker, a contralto who displayed excellent control of that incredible instrument of hers, had hands waving, people singing, and all present in full praise mode. Likewise, LaLa Johnson and Bryant Huey each delivered good performances of My Everything, My All and No Greater Love respectively and added to the liveliness of the production.
Sometimes directors make the mistake of inserting more content into a production than is theatrically necessary, so the inclusion of praise dancers and a dancing mime in the Nativity story could be perceived as excessive but that wasn't the case here. In both of the dance numbers choreographed by Huey (who also served as the play's charismatic pastor), especially the mime dance performed beyond exquisite by the gifted Donald Thompkins, the imagery was breathtaking and elevated the narrative to the greatness intended by Hughes.
The showstopper, however, was the contemporary hit Total Praise by the legendary Richard Smallwood, which brought the house DOWN, including a brief reprisal of the tune. The pitch perfect blending of the ensemble's voices was downright heavenly and made you remember the real reason for the season, something an old scrooge like this critic just couldn't ignore.
Black Nativity by Langston Hughes, directed by Selmore Haines, III, runs through Dec. 21, 2014 (Dec. 19, 20, and 21) at the Bishop Arts Theatre Center, located at 215 South Tyler Street, Dallas, TX 75208.
General seating applies. Show times are at 3:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. All seats are $15 in advance, $20 at the door (plus service fee). All sales final. No refunds or exchanges. For more information, call the box office at 214-948-0716 or visit: www.tecotheater.org.