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Black Nativity’s simple setup has a big payoff

Caroline Yang

Caroline Yang

To see Penumbra Theatre’s Black Nativity is to be shown how narrow the emotional range of most other seasonal shows is. Fuzzy nostalgia, quiet reverence, pure silliness, rarified exaltation — various holiday traditions hit different notes, while Black Nativity slides up and down the entire keyboard.

Black Nativity

Penumbra Theatre
$15-$40

A deeply felt exploration of faith and grace, Black Nativity does for the Christmas story what a gospel song does for a melody: states it once, twice, three times, and then starts to work emphatic, increasingly animated variations. By the end, everyone’s clapping and shouting and a little bit transformed.

Black Nativity was created by Langston Hughes in 1961, premiering Off-Broadway in New York. The simple play — a retelling of the biblical narrative of Christ’s birth, with gospel songs chosen by Hughes — has evolved considerably over the years. Some elaborate productions have choirs of hundreds, with full casts of characters enacting the story.

Penumbra’s version has also undergone changes since its premiere in 1987. The company has tried themed stagings in recent years, but the current production goes back to the basics, “as close to the original” as they can get, write co-artistic-directors Lou and Sarah Bellamy in a program note.

The Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church Choir of nine stand before an unvarnished wooden set piece: the outline of a church topped by a star that, in due time, blazes with light. Choir director Yolande Bruce stands in front with two soloists, Greta Oglesby and Dennis W. Spears, and director Lou Bellamy narrates from a podium at stage right. A small, soulful, and tight four-piece band led by Sanford Moore crowds in at stage left.

The production unfolds as a series of gospel songs and carols framed by Hughes’ text. Two dances, elegantly choreographed by Uri Sands, are performed by Taylor Collier and Randall Riley, who glow with energy and devotion.

Oglesby brings tremendous force to songs like “Mary Had a Baby,” and did so even Friday night, when her voice was ailing (other singers stepped up to take some of her parts). Bruce steps downstage to engage the crowd, and when she asks the faithful to come, they come. Spears brings a fleet-footed spark to his uptempo numbers and a haunting grace to quiet songs like “I Wonder as I Wander,” which comes early and helps establish the show’s gravity.

The narration begins as a straightforward retelling with language taken directly from the Bible, then develops into repetitions and rhyming verse that emphasizes the Good News while not neglecting the bad news. Pregnant with the son of God, Mary was turned away from the inn. In this African-American rendition, the parallel with unjust institutions of 1961 — and of today — is unmistakable.

Black Nativity
Penumbra Theatre
270 N. Kent St., St. Paul
651-224-3180; through December 20