"It's one of the few shows around Christmastime that celebrates what Christmas is about," Lou Bellamy has said of Black Nativity. That's true in the sense that it specifically tells the story of Christ's birth, but it's also true in the sense that it's a celebration of true holiday joy: the kind of joy you create and pass on, rather than simply declaring.
The annual holiday tradition began 30 years ago at Penumbra Theatre, but its roots go back to 1961, when Langston Hughes debuted his gospel-driven narrative in an Off-Broadway production. The show has proved highly adaptable; the version Bellamy currently directs at Penumbra is simple and devout, with a strong focus on music and two interludes of dance choreographed by Uri Sands.
The script is based in the biblical account of Jesus' arrival, but in adapting its language and transforming its context, Hughes rooted the Christmas story and its message of hope in African-American art and experiences.
While glossier nativity stories present the stable as a sort of shabby chic — replete with Joseph's hipster beard — Black Nativity finds a resonant metaphor in the holy family being cast out of the inn. "By a door closed at the inn, where only men of means get in. By a door closed to the poor, Christ is born on earthen floor."
In Penumbra's production, there are no costumed wise men or shepherds, but there's nonetheless plenty of witnessing. An eight-voice gospel choir stands upstage, against a rustic wooden set piece designed by Lance Brockman, evoking both a stable and a church. Yolande Bruce leads the choir, with musical director Sanford Moore and four additional players holding it down at stage left.
At stage right stands a narrator. That's a position traditionally taken by Bellamy himself, but this year, the podium is passed to Jennifer Whitlock. She delivers Hughes' words with pointed passion, and it's powerfully appropriate to have a woman step into the leading role. This is the first Black Nativity to be staged with Sarah Bellamy as Penumbra's artistic director, while across the river Charity Jones is making history as the first woman to take the stage as Scrooge at the Guthrie Theater.
Women's voices are also being lifted up in song, as has long been the case at Penumbra. Bruce raises the roof on "Sweet Little Jesus Boy," and soloist Greta Oglesby steps out for several numbers, including a deeply soulful "O Come All Ye Faithful." Male soloist Dennis W. Spears is positively irrepressible, ripping it up with his twirls and hops on "Christ Is Born." On Thursday's opening night, he kept urging the choir higher and higher until finally a grinning Bruce had to grab his hand and pull it down.
Once again, Black Nativity sparkles — both spiritually and literally — with Oglesby's glittery eyelids offsetting Spears' silver shirt. At the show's climax, the lights go down and the heavens appear before us, with the Star of David shining brightly above the stable. Now that's what Christmas is all about.