Saturday, December 5, 2015

Black Nativity - Penumbra Theatre: Music for the Soul

"There is a sound that comes from gospel music that doesn't come from anything else. It is a sound of peace. It is a sound of 'I'm going to make it through all of this.'" ~Yolanda Adams, gospel singer
After seeing Black Nativity at Penumbra Theatre, I found myself searching for words to describe how the music in this show makes me feel.

As a society, we are going through unbelievably hard times. Mass shootings, racial tensions heightened, and the ugly spectacle of an upcoming presidential race. It's disheartening, to say the least.

Penumbra Theatre has been performing Langston Hughes' Black Nativity for twenty-eight years.Through this time, the show has seen a wide variety of productions, from a simple story told in barn, to a glossy spectacle starring Jennifer Holliday and back around to a concert presentation. (More on my all-time favorite version below.) This year's Black Nativity, billed as A Tradition of Love and Light, is a beautiful but simple production that highlights the spiritual healing in music.

The Christmas story is narrated by Lou Bellamy, Penumbra Theatre founder. A few scenes are underscored with lovely, heartfelt dance by dancers Taylor Collier and Randall Riley as Mary and Joseph (choreographed by Uri Sands). The rest of the show is just beautiful song. The Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church Choir takes the stage, along with musicians led by Sanford Moore, and Yolande Bruce directs them in song. And sing they do.

They are joined by soloists Dennis W. Spears and Jamecia Bennett. Spears is well-known to local theatergoers for his amazing vocal talents, and lends his unique, jazzy phrasing to his songs. Bennett, who was so amazing in Park Square's The Color Purple this year, has the most exquisite voice. It's rich and clear, and climbs to amazing heights, but it never becomes about the singing--it's always about the praise. And Yolande Bruce, leading the choir with her whole body, is a show unto herself.

If you've seen Black Nativity before, you'll be familiar with some of these songs, as well as Hughes's words. I have never wanted to sing along at a show so much in my life (and trust me: singing along unasked at theater drives me crazy). And I seldom see a show where not only does the audience keep clapping until and after the band finishes playing, but keeps clapping long after that.

I love the joy that the entire cast takes in not only their performances, but in everyone else's. It is truly a joyful celebration of Christmas, peace, love, and song.

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Sidebar: I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Black Nativity. Years ago, when I worked at Fitzgerald Theater, the show was the soundtrack of my holiday season. I'll never forget hearing the whispered count right before the cast began to sing "Go Tell It On the Mountain" as they entered the theater through the house. I still get goosebumps thinking about it. And wandering out into the lobby and seeing the Three Kings in all their gorgeous regalia. And T. Mychael Rambo will always be my preacher of choice; I loved hearing him sing the house down every night.

Watching this year's production of Black Nativity, I couldn't help but remember the wonderful performers who are no longer with us, including Joe Carter, singing "I Wonder As I Wander" and Kathryn Gagnon, lending her age, authority and humor to every scene. I love that this show helped me to remember these amazing performances and add new memories to the old.

In short, this show will feed your heart and soul this holiday season. Lean back, bask and let your heart be filled up by this beautiful music and message.