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Twin Cities – Penumbra’s ‘Black Nativity’

Review: Penumbra’s ‘Black Nativity’ brings the power of song, spirit

"Black Nativity" is on stage at Penumbra Theatre. (Photo by Caroline Yang)
“Black Nativity” is on stage at Penumbra Theatre. (Photo by Caroline Yang)

 

 

The performers really blow the roof off the stable in Penumbra Theatre’s latest production of “Black Nativity.”

It begins as eight members of Kingdom Life Church file onstage from the aisles, taking their places under the eight-pointed star at the top of the realistic barn wall behind them that composes the set. They belt out a couple of gospel songs, directed by Yolande Bruce, before being joined onstage by soloists Greta Oglesby and Dennis W. Spears (longtime “Nativity” stars). In an almost jarring counterpoint to the rousing gospel songs, Spears sings a soft, heartfelt styling of “I Wonder As I Wander.”

Then a narrator, Jennifer Whitlock, takes us back to Bethlehem. As in recent years, this “Black Nativity” retains the gospel focus of the play originally created by Langston Hughes in 1961 and features narrated bits of Bible readings interspersed with Hughes’ nativity poetry, such as “Shepherd’s Song at Christmas.”

As always, music is the core of the show, and director Lou Bellamy keeps things lively by juxtaposing songs with very different tones and giving us every possible permutation of solos, duets, quartets and choir-backed power.

Often, the songs nicely echo the words, as when Whitlock says, “No room at the inn. No room!” followed by Spears singing “No room!”

Twice within the production we are treated to soloists accompanied by a pair of dancers choreographed beautifully by Uri Sands. Randall Riley is strong, but Taylor Collier is riveting in the role of Mary. These are highpoints of the show.

A quartet of Bruce, Oglesby, Spears and choir soprano Deborah Finney sing “Jerusalem in the Morning” and later a clap-inducing African-American spiritual. Finney has a powerful voice and also sings a solo centered on “Jesus!” (although she is surprisingly not identified as a soloist in the program).

Oglesby and Spears often perform duets and solos — and do the heavy lifting of singing in the show. Their version of “Go Tell it On the Mountain,” backed by the choir, practically brings the house down — as does a solo by Bruce who laments “We didn’t know!”

When Oglesby invites the audience to sing along on “O Come All Ye Faithful,” it’s hard to resist and many become part of the singing celebration, instead of mere spectators.

Musical director and keyboardist Sanford Moore leads a team of talented musicians who drive the soul of the show, expertly turning on a dime from soft and heartfelt to rafter-raising gospel stylings.

It all ends as rousingly as it began, with a final “Alleluia” that sends audiences on their way with a glow inside, to outshine the dark night.

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IF YOU GO

  • What: “Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity”
  • Where: Penumbra Theater, 270 N. Kent St., St. Paul.
  • When: Through December 24
  • Tickets: $40 ($15 students, $35 senior)
  • Information:penumbratheatre.org; 651-224-3180
  • Capsule: The power of song and spirit is unstoppable.

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