Once upon a time there was an annual Penumbra Theatre Company production called Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity. Once upon a time there was an annual Penumbra Theatre Company production called Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity. It was an earthy extravaganza depicting farmers, blacksmiths and such folk circa something like 1840. This extravaganza celebrated the birth of Christ with serious, down-home soul. It also illuminated a strong connection of said soul African spirituality. The show was a solid hit for quite a few years running, but eventually ceased to draw large crowds (which says a great deal more about unappreciative Twin Citians than it does about the sterling spectacle that once was). On the one hand, one might say if something ain’t broke, don’t fix it. On the other, you could reasonably say that Penumbra, like any other company producing holiday show, has to show a consistent profit. So, while neither of two revamped versions of Black Nativity, the latest currently running on boards, can hold a candle to the original, something understandably had to be done to fill the seats and keep ‘em filled. If nothing else, the house Lou Bellamy built certainly seems to have solved that problem for this season, bringing marquee name Jennifer Holliday in to star in the show.
The opening night crowd at the new Black Nativity simply could not get enough and surely went home anxious to tell their friends, neighbors, family and anyone who’d sit still and listen long enough about what a great time they had, which says more about how much Twin Citians love sizzle than it does about how much steak was on the plate.
To be sure, there are some wonderful performances in this production, starting with show-stopper T. Mychael Rambo who was a singing, dancing demon as the Narrator/Preacher for years and lets loose with galvanizing electricity this time around as power-mad King Herod. If stealing the show was a crime, Rambo rioting singing and marvelous acting turn would get him locked up for grand theft. Austene Van Williams Clark shines as well, offering effortless command of the stage and expertly measured vocals to virtually hypnotize. Gifted singer Dennis Spears holds forth in lustrous form. Black Nativity mainstays Jennifer Whitlock and Kathryn Gagnon, too, are due kudos for singing with not only technical proficiency, but a world of feeling.
The rest of the show relies on featured performers relentlessly over-blowing to provide stereotypically hackneyed phrasing in scenery-chewing postures to approximate moments of profound emotion. Between Jennifer Holliday, Aimee K. Bryant and Andravay, all you needed is sliced cheese and bread to have enough ham sandwiches to feed a picnic. But, like I said, the audience loved it. They also enjoyed the costumes which depicted stable animals and were blatantly ripped off from The Lion King. An odd aspect is the “color-blind” casting of Laurine Price, an Asian actor portraying Mary in a show titled Black Nativity. Go figure.
Ultimately, the nation’s premiere African American theatre venue evidently has come up with a formula by which to not only viably compete at the most commercial time of year, but definitively prevail. This is a good thing. Black theatre, after all, has every bit as much right to bring in the buck and heighten its profile as does the proliferation of White entities which consistently hold vast and overly represented sway in the lucrative, razzle-dazzle marketplace. Penumbra Theatre Company is to be congratulated for this unequivocal success. Further, Lou Bellamy is to be lauded as a shrewd producer who is not content to merely survive, but is indomitably determined to unquestionably stand amid those at the top of the proverbial heap. Add to this that Penumbra Theatre Company’s bread and butter is the business of bringing to America’s stage the breath-taking, but unconscionably obscured breadth and depth of Black life.
So, if popular fare is your cup of tea, hurry up an