News Column

Black Rep settles into its new home with a familiar title, 'Black Nativity'

December 5, 2013

YellowBrix

Dec. 05--The first time that the Black Rep staged "Black Nativity: A Holiday Celebration," the troupe was in its original home, the vibrant but ramshackle 23rd Street Theatre.

With the current production of the same show, it moves into the beautifully proportioned Emerson Performance Theatre at Harris-Stowe State University. A curving brick-and-wood venue, it feels something like a miniature version of the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

The Emerson has about 230 seats. That's smaller than the Grandel, the theater where the Black Rep performed for the last 20 years. When Grand Center sold the Grandel in August, the Black Rep faced a crisis. But this new building -- with its refined style inside and a free parking lot at the door -- looks like a step up: intimate, convenient and attractive.

Ron Himes, the Black Rep's founder and producing director, had to put the first Emerson production together at breakneck speed. "Black Nativity" was a good choice for that reason. The troupe has staged it several times over the years, so it was familiar, and its revue style requires little in the way of staging. Jim Burwinkle, the set and lighting designer, establishes all we need with just a few platforms, a starry sky and a couple of Christmas trees.

Poet Langston Hughes wrote "Black Nativity," but Himes freely adapted it, including lots of musical choices that didn't exist when the play was new. (Nevertheless, Hughes deserves a credit in the program, which he does not receive. Hughes' play also inspired the new movie of the same name.)

The first act tells the story of the birth of Jesus -- but with an Afrocentric twist that informs everything from Marissa Perry's colorful costumes to the reggae beat favored by the shepherds in the field.

Evann De-Bose and Herman Gordon portray Singing Mary and Singing Joseph; Alicia Gbaho and Ryan King Johnson portray their dancing counterparts. Wearing almost-identical costumes, the four performers slip in and out of the spotlight in ways that are easy to follow.

Choreographer Heather Beal portrays the birth in a dramatic dance as the vibrant ensemble comforts Mary with a remarkably apt gospel song: "Hold On (Just a Little While Longer)." Later, De-Bose praises her "Sweet Little Jesus Boy" in a voice as sweet as honey.

The multicultural salad continues in Act 2, when Jermaine Smith's supple treatment of "Ave Maria" leads into a compelling mash-up of "Little Drummer Boy," "Zu Wa Kuwanna" and "Do You Hear What I Hear?" It feels a little bit like a number from "The Lion King," especially with Gbaho and Johnson leaping and whinnying like a pair of happy gazelles.

But most of the act is devoted to a sophisticated Christmas party that involves lots of seasonal pop standards. This goes on too long; furthermore, the musical director Kyle Kelley's band and the vocalists haven't quite worked out a good balance. It is a new house, true, but if you can't reliably hear a powerful singer like Herman Gordon, you know something is off.

Still, he and Roz White make a darling couple in their duets, "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and "The Christmas Song." Another couple, Leslie Johnson and Eboni Wilson, deliver a touching treatment of "Mary, Did You Know?," as Gbaho and Ryan Johnson perform a tender, lyrical dance.

"Black Nativity" is not so much an alternative to seasonal standards like "A Christmas Carol" as a complement to them. If your family enjoys entertainment at this time of the year, consider the Black Rep for a show at once traditional and fresh.

'Black Nativity'

When --Through Dec. 22

Where --Harris-Stowe State University, 3031 Laclede Avenue

How much --$35-$45; $10 student rush tickets 30 minutes before curtain

More info --314-534-3810; theblackrep.org

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