BWW Review: BLACK NATIVITY at Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe
Black Nativity grabs your attention the minute the production begins. With contrasting white robes and vivid colors of African inspired garb, the rhythm of tribal drums, and impassioned dancers who cover every inch of the elegant Sarasota Opera House stage, it's a feast for your eyes, ears, and spirit.
Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe and their founder/director Nate Jacobs breathe life into the classic Nativity story of Christ's birth through Langston Hughes' soulful rendition that will take you to church - a black gospel church. Can I get an AMEN! Langston Hughes was a man ahead of his time; activist, poet, playwright, are just of few of the facets of his education and character that enhance the writing of this piece which opened Off-Broadway in 1961. A film version directed by Kasi Lemmons and starring Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett was released in 2013.
Black Nativity is a musical walk through the Gospels (Good News) of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which manifests the story of the Christ child as narrated by Robert Richards, Jr. It takes us from Bethlehem right up to a present day church service. I think it is important to make note that Hughes' rendition is careful in staying true to the viewpoint in which the Gospels were written. Matthew focused on Joseph's role. Luke focused on Mary's role. John's focus was zeroed in on the fact that God had come in human form to dwell amongst us. Mark focused on Jesus' servant leadership. In Black Nativity you will be a witness to Christ's birth through the perspective of the Gospel writers' mindset via the songs they sing.
Mary (Yanessa Morillo) sweetly sings "You Are Wonderful" and "Breath of Heaven" from a mother's heart, so precious and tender. Joseph (Jonathan Isaac) proudly delivered "Christmas Means Love", from a loving father and husband. Watching over everyone throughout the production and giving them hope and encouragement is the Archangel Gabriel (Tarra Conner-jones) who gives the show a big opener singing "Hail Mary", then knocks the roof off the house with, "Mary Had a Baby" with tight harmonies from the ensemble, "Go Tell It on the Mountain", and rousing church camp songs "Meeting Tonight" and "We Need a Revival". Miss Connor-jones did not need a mic. I'm pretty sure even the Lord heard those notes and proudly looked over the balconies of Heaven with a smile. Mark my word that voice and personality will be on Broadway.
The clever narration woven between various scenes and songs is a history lesson personified with enthusiasm and joy by Robert Richards, Jr. Herman Gordon had great stage presence and shook the rafters with that deep bass voice, especially singing "Amen, Amen, Amen" and "Somewhere to lay My Head". Loved the jazzy rendition of "Rise Up Shepherd and Follow" with Mr. Gordon and the beautiful voice of Samone Hicks. Resident choreographer Donald Frison did a marvelous job choreographing his dancers with the rise and fall of the storyline, to which they added a fluid and emotional dimension. Costumes by Angela Franklin-Mayo, set by Michael Newton-Brown, lighting by Michael Pasquini, and music by Matthew McKinnon and band brought beauty, depth and a warm ambiance to this radiantly staged production.
Sweet little Aryam Pitts dazzled in "Who Would Imagine a King" and although forgot some of the lyrics in her duet with Nate Jacobs singing "My Grown Up Christmas List", maintained her stage presence and hung in there with Mr. Jacobs, who lovingly took her hand and encouraged her to the end of the song. Two pros at work: one with years of performance and one just getting started. Combined, they got through a beautiful song and were the personification of how we as children may falter, yet God will take our hand and walk us through. Miss Pitts, you deserved that loud standing ovation at the end of the show. And Mr.Jacobs, you are a gentleman and showed what a true mentor can be.
There was so much music, so many good lessons, amazing singers and dancers to take in. This has been a Sarasota tradition for over ten years and is one you don't want to miss. Treat yourself to a lively and loving Sarasota Christmas tradition.
Black Nativity runs December 12, 13, 19, 20, 21, 2018 at the Sarasota Opera House. For more information on Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe visit www.westcoastblacktheatre.org.