Sunday, December 14, 2003

'Black Nativity' spreads the joy

Theater review

By Joseph McDonough
Enquirer contributor

The Cincinnati Black Theatre Company is again presenting Langston Hughes' Black Nativity for the holidays - this time on the campus of Xavier University, and with a major change by director Don Sherman.

Though the program doesn't make it clear, the first act of this production is a contemporary parable (interspersed with Christmas songs) apparently written by Carlos Edwards and Paula Sherman.

This new Nativity story of an easy-going husband (David Mizell) and overbearing wife (Nia Jabbar) who are shocked when their good son Yosef (Alonzo Rutlede) comes home for Christmas with his pregnant girlfriend Miriam (Karama Butler) is a skit that goes on too long and is quite under-rehearsed.

It only comes alive when the cast begins to sing, particularly with a bluesy "Merry Christmas, Baby" and a soulful "Sinners Prayer."

The production takes off, however, in the second act, which is an abridged version of Black Nativity, Hughes' celebrated "song-play" retelling the traditional story of the birth of Jesus through gospel music and poetry.

The focus here is on the music and the large cast (24 adults and 39 children) knocks out the gospel numbers with a lot of power, flair and fun.

Credit musical director Kamau Means and vocal coach Avery Hammonds with delivering solid choral work from the full ensemble with several highlighted soloists.

Especially enjoyable are a kids chorus of "I Surrender All," Butler (as Mary) singing "Sweet Little Jesus Boy," and group work with "Christ is Born," and "Joy Great Joy."

The choreography by Deborah Quinones Stewart and Avery Hammonds is beautiful, as it blends the spiritual strength of the biblical message with traditional African rhythm movement and costuming.

Especially enjoyable to watch is the children's ensemble who dance and chant an extended celebration of joy with a lot of energy and spirit.

Largely unseen (hidden under the Gallagher Theatre stage) but certainly heard is a combo of terrific musicians who deliver first-rate accompaniment.

Led by Mike Gaston's hip church organ, the band also includes fine work by Ralph Wilson on piano, Ron Miller on bass, Jermaine Gentry on drums, and Prince Johnson and Isaiah McGivens providing percussion drums.

It all leads to a rousing closing number - a gospel version of "Joy to the World." The entire cast assembles on stage, and celebrates the message of Black Nativity with the audience.

Black Nativity, through next Sunday, Cincinnati Black Theatre Company, (513) 241-6060.

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