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BWW Review: Black Theatre Troupe Presents Langston Hughes's BLACK NATIVITY


This must-see production of Langston Hughes's classic runs through December 19th at The Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center in Phoenix.

BWW Review: Black Theatre Troupe Presents Langston Hughes's BLACK NATIVITY

After experiencing Black Theatre Troupe's production of Langston Hughes's BLACK NATIVITY, I walked out of the Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center certain of one thing:

That, regardless of one's religious persuasion, this show is a celebration of life and faith that will uplift your soul and imbue your experience of the Holiday Season with extra special meaning.

The musical is a tradition at Black Theatre Troupe. It has presented the unique retelling of the Nativity story since 1975. This year, under the inspired direction of Walter Belcher and with an ensemble of dynamic voices, the show retains the spirit and fervor that makes it a must-see.

BLACK NATIVITY's distinctiveness derives from Hughes's desire to accentuate the perspective of his community. As Donald Gibson (scholar and author of Five Black Writers) observed, Hughes "differed from most of his predecessors among black that he addressed his poetry to the people, specifically to black people. During the twenties, when most American poets were turning inward, writing obscure and esoteric poetry to an ever-decreasing audience of readers, Hughes was turning outward, using language and themes, attitudes and ideas familiar to anyone who had the ability simply to read."

As one of the most formidable figures of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes had written a number of plays and musicals ~ in addition to his novels and poetry. However, in 1961, amidst the turbulence of the civil rights movement, he was moved to compose what he called "the Gospel Song-Play," featuring an entirely black cast and gospel choir. (The original cast included a young Alvin Ailey!) The show was first produced in December 1961 at New York's 41st Street Theatre and has since become a staple of the Christmas Season.

The first act recreates the journey of Mary (Shaniece Brazwell) and Joseph (choreographer Alexander Patrick) and the celebration of Jesus's birth. As Desmond Sweet narrates their experience, Brazwell and Patrick combine for interpretive dancing that is grace-in-motion. The stunning vocals of George Johnson (Poor Little Jesus), Nancy Taylor (Go Tell It On The Mountain), and Trevell McElwee-Chappell (My Way's Cloudy) are but a few of those in the ensemble that merit acknowledgement.

The second act takes a radical turn to modern times with powerful reflections on the African-American experience, as intense and challenged today as it was in the '60's and prior decades.

The cast, now clad in t-shirts that proclaim "Walk by faith, Not by sight," elevate the show's message to what is a call for fearlessness and resolution in the midst of trouble times. Sia Dixon rocks the house with Safe In His Arms. McElwee-Chappell joins with Shara Jones and Janniza Jeffy for a moving delivery of My World Needs You. Nancy Taylor is amazing in her turn with When The Battle Is Over. Dominique Bailey demonstrates his dancing chops in a beautiful interpretive dance with Ms. Brazwell. And, in a singularly tender moment that brings the show to its culmination, Patrick sweeps across the stage to George Johnson's Mary, Did You Know?

Throughout both acts, the ensemble of this reverential production honors Hughes's intentions with rousing renditions of a mix of spirituals and traditional carols.

Under the musical direction of Brenda Hankins (on piano) and her fellow musicians (Cedric Evens on drums and percussion Joseph Lindsey on bass, and Kaelin Porter on organ and keyboards), the fusion of jazz and gospel reverberates throughout the theatre. Given the intensity of a revival, it's virtually impossible to refrain from joining in with enthusiastic hand-clapping and affirmations.

Carol Simmons (whose bio notes her 40-year history with BTT) clothes the ensemble in an elegant array of culture-specific costumes. Those of the Three Kings are a sight to behold!

BLACK NATIVITY runs through December 19th at The Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center in Phoenix.

Photo credit to Durant Communications

Black Theatre Troupe ~ ~ 1333 E. Washington St., Phoenix, AZ ~ Box Office: 602-258-8128

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From This Author Herbert Paine