Black Nativity opens with a reminder that no matter how many times Langston Hughes’s joyous Nativity production is performed in D.C.—no matter how often the Nativity story is told, period—there is still immense power in the work. The opener is a stunner that sets the pace for this rapturous show: an explosive rendition of “Joy to the World,” performed in a Swahili dialect, a song that fills the Anacostia Playhouse to the point of brimming over.
It’s hardly a musical that needed any retooling: Black Nativity earned three of the seven Helen Hayes Awards that the Theater Alliance claimed this spring. Yet the show’s director, Eric Ruffin, has nevertheless added a new dimension to this year’s production. With a few quiet moments, Ruffin has embedded commentary on the Black Lives Matter movement, making this year’s Black Nativity both awesome and radical.
The musical moves in two acts: The first centers around the story of Mary and Joseph (played by Whitney Hutcherson and Darin Turner, respectively) and emphasizes the choreography of Princess Mhoon. Her telling of the Gospel stories of the birth of Jesus focuses on the immense love between Mary and Joseph and the struggle that brings them to Bethlehem; their dance scenes are balletic, modest, and modern. The next act mirrors the holy family’s union—Christ and Church as husband and wife—through gospel, hymnal, jazz, and blues music, directed by e’Marcus Harper-Short.
Mary discovers there’s no room at the inn at an early high point in the first act, with Hutcherson spun this way and that by the (excellent) ensemble. It’s just after a big bluesy musical number when the lights turn red, and the women in the ensemble drape their bodies over those of the men. The cast is still. There are a series of cracks, like whips. The brief dramatic pause presages the Scourging at the Pillar, but it also hints darkly at the official violence that the Black Lives Matter movement has organized to resist.
Black Nativity never gets too preachy, despite the subject matter, thanks in part to the dynamic performance of the ensemble. Roy Patten Jr., especially, brings levity to the musical with his hammy performance as a player shepherd. (He brings the house down with a major solo as the preacher of a black church in the second act.) Jonathan Livas, the drummer for the live trio, hammers out a bombastic drum solo as a take on “Little Drummer Boy.” It’s a testament to this ensemble (and the source material) that the shifts between elegant and abstract dance to over-the-top choir numbers and sensational solos are as seamless as they are.
The first act draws to a close with a significant transition. After a gospel take on “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” Christ appears as a man, His body lain at the feet of Mary and Joseph. The visual recalls the pietà, or depictions of the Lamentation of Christ from art history. But inevitably, the scene summons to mind the names of so many black men and women (and children) slain by police in just the last year and a half.
The second act begins with another important turn: a funeral. In one of the few spoken lines of the musical, a pastor says “Our lives matter,” to a chorus of amens. By this time in the performance, the fourth wall had fallen: Members of the audience joined in on traditional spirituals as if it were the Theater Alliance were conducting a service. Solo performances by nearly every woman in the ensemble (especially Kelli Blackwell) made a convincing case that it really was church. A religious person might have found the Holy Spirit in the building; a secular observer will certainly find heart. Black Nativity swells to a close filled with joy, and even grace, something that seems far off for us as a nation, as far off as Zion.
Through Jan. 4 at the Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Place SE. $25-$35.