BLACK NATIVITY: Twenty Years of Holiday Cheer!
at Penumbra Theatre through December 30
Penumbra's 20th anniversary holiday show begins by leaning hard on the sense of loss that comes over some of us during the holidays, with a recently widowed grandmother (Greta Oglesby) looking through a book of family photos and mourning her dead husband. That's about it for downers, though, for her extended family soon shows up and launches into a dazzling array of traditional music performed with enough brio to cheer up the most curmudgeonly soul. Once the skeletal plot is established, it's on to 29 songs, performed in 90 minutes without intermission. Director Austene Van finds a near-perfect balance between ensemble numbers featuring the 14-strong cast (early on, "Oh Jersusalem in the Morning" combines yearning with ebullience as the signature mood of the entire piece) and solo spots such as Dennis W. Spears's "I Wonder as I Wander," and Jamecia Bennett's "Mary Had a Baby" (accompanied by dancer Alana Morris, contrasting choreographer Uri Sands's contemporary sensibility with the music's gospel roots). Ansa Akyea appears throughout in African dress, looking on like a benevolent ghost at the proceedings, wearing an expression of joyous wonder at the fantastic sounds all around him. And as the tunes pile up (Sanford Moore directs the unseen four-piece band), Black Nativity reveals its depths through the songs and the passion with which they are delivered. With themes of dispossession, dislocation, and the memory of an ancestral holy land, the performances draw a line between Christian mythology and the African American experience that resonates as true in the heart as it does in the head. While the show I attended last week was marred by sound glitches that distracted from the fluid ensemble work, by the end of the show the experience is little short of transformational. Like all the best art, it begins to resonate on a universal frequency, while losing none of its culture-specific message. As for that skeletal plot, a bit of video trickery at the end involving Oglesby and Ernest Robinson as her late husband provoked an unexpected misting of the eyes. Amen, indeed.
Tickets for Black Nativity at Penumbra Theatre range $15-$35 with shows 7:30 p.m. Thursdays and Sundays, 8:00 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:00 p.m. Sundays through December 30. For more info call 651.224.3180.