Adapted from Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity
Directed by Erica Denise Bledsaw
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2016 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Black Nativity is adapted from a work by Langston Hughes that premiered off-Broadway in 1961. More pageant than play, it tells a fairly traditional version of the nativity wreathed in African American culture. Erica Bledsaw has staged it as the second production of her Youth Repertory Theatre Troupe of Louisville, casting with an ear for voices, which is an appropriate priority for this material.
Act One introduces Mary (Najiyah Clayborn) and Joseph (Chase Dean), who grapple with Mary’s immaculate conception in an exchange that includes some contemporary comic sensibility. There is humor peppered throughout, but the overall tone is piety leavened with irreverent notes, particularly in the sequence of three shepherds (Chase Phillips, Xavier Sims, & Jamar Stone).
Hughes devotes little time to character development or a narrative apart from the traditional nativity, relying on the ritual familiarity of the tale as a structure for high-energy gospel standards. With the ensemble acting as choir, the story is told through music and a Narrator (Josh Berry) clad in top hat and tails.
Several soloists took full advantage of the spotlight, notably Mariyah Martin’s “Joy to the World,” Chase Dean’s “No Room at the Inn,” and Jamar Stone’s “Rise Up Shepherd and Follow.” Najiyah Clayborn, who had made such an impression as Dorothy in this company’s production of The Wiz last summer, seemed to be struggling to find her voice in her first number “Who Would Imagine A King,” but overcame whatever impediment or congestion to deliver the goods in Act Two. There are several rocking ensemble numbers, and one sweet, sweet, three-part harmony in “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” performed by Dean, Stone, and Chase Phillips.
Act Two is entirely contemporary, virtually abandoning any pretense of narrative to take us to church for what was essentially a gospel concert. The ensemble looked resplendent, and young Chase Phillips leads the service with assurance. Mr. Phillips was a highlight throughout the evening, strong in voice and with charm to burn; his precocious turn put one in mind of Michael Jackson as a child, a common observation heard amongst the crowd in the lobby afterward.
Bledsaw’s Black Nativity is unabashedly ecclesiastical, never for a moment coy about its wholehearted embrace of Christianity. At various time audience members rose in response to the action onstage, and when Phillips called for individuals to testify – a cue for members of the ensemble to step up for the next number, there were more than a few people in the audience ready to come forward, clearly swept up in the energy. For this non-believer, the second act felt a bit overlong, despite the upbeat performance. Without a more solid narrative structure, it felt a tad repetitive.
But you also feel Bledsaw’s loving embrace of her cast, and her eagerness to showcase all of the talent at her disposal with equanimity. She is helped by John Keen’s simple but powerful choreography, and a crackerjack band under the direction of Omega “Tre” Latham that lays a soulful foundation for the fulsome score.
December 16, 17, & 18 @ 7:00pm
December 18 @ 2:00pm
Youth Repertory Theatre Troupe of Louisville
Louisville Central Community Center
1300 West Muhammad Ali Blvd.
Louisville, Kentucky 40203
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of PUBLIC on WXOX-FM 97.1/ ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.