Penumbra's Black Nativity uplifts and perseveres

Joy to the world: The cast of Black Nativity
Ann Marsden

The time has arrived to put to bed what has been, by most measures, a wan and wretched decade (granted, it doesn't technically finish until the end of 2010, but let's conspire to wrap it up early). Understanding its history will probably remain confounding and elusive. It's the sort of season in which one might indeed look inside, check the ledgers, and inventory the heart.

Penumbra's Black Nativity is a rarity, a show in which you can lose yourself in music and spirit, while tracing various threads and byways to whatever is shining and eternal. With more than 20 songs in less than 90 minutes, it's a seamless and soulful transmission, as much a balm as a show, a statement of faith almost transcendentally nourishing.

The company has been doing one version or another of the show almost annually for more than 30 years, and this season's permutation feels familiar yet aligned in a slightly new direction, stripped-down, all emotion, with narrative necessity shoved to the back seat in favor of an intuitive approach.

What story there is can be broken down as such: a grieving grandmother (Greta Oglesby) is staying at the home of her son (T. Mychael Rambo) after losing her husband that year. Sensing she needs help, the Almighty dispatches a Wanderer (Dennis W. Spears, arriving in a shiny suit but soon accepting his boss's directive to don more humble attire) to help her and her family reconnect with a spirit of love and belonging. Of course it works beautifully.

There is no dialogue, just a succession of songs that nudge us inexorably toward an encompassing sense of redemption and perseverance. Sanford Moore toils as pianist and musical director, his arrangements leaning toward a percussive, understated gospel jazz that is nonetheless capable of abetting grand moments.

Moore also sensibly leaves the emphasis on the voices carrying these tunes, and Oglesby, Rambo, and Ginger Commodore as the family's mother wring often-phenomenal resonance from such traditional numbers as "Go Tell It on the Mountain," and "Oh Jerusalem in the Morning." With the addition of the characters of three angels, at times the onstage ensemble nears double digits, and the effect is expansive.

Spears depicts his celestial helper as wracked with ambivalence, hurt by the beauty of existence and its attendant pain, in "I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In," and "I Wonder as I Wander." It's as though his character, all flash and swagger in his first appearance, becomes more mired in the paradoxes of mortality the closer he orbits this family. Posing as a homeless man, he absorbs their generosity with such wonder that he himself becomes transformed.

There is, of course, a larger tale here than that of a family spending its first Christmas without a beloved grandfather (though that thread runs through everything). The story of loss and needing to carry on is one that strikes us all at one time or another. Here, stirring performances of African American music tie together themes of lost homes, wreckage, and struggle that delineate the long (often untold) story of a people's unique history, but also of everyone in the American march of ideas, will, and soul.

It is both specific and universal, in other words, which is as decent a definition of artistic success as any. It's difficult to listen to so much Christian gospel, in fact, without hearing themes of death and rebirth as notions vital to ourselves and the way we understand them, not to mention the beauty (memories, hope) that lies behind the pain that the holidays have a way of magnifying.

This is stuff to stir the soul, and in the end it provides a cosmic affirmation, a statement of yes in the face of despair. And frankly, it rocks. Consider the holidays properly inaugurated. 

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