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Join in the joy with Black Nativity

by Lenise Willis

Cast of Black Nativity at The Barn DInner Theatre (photo by Michael Logan Hill) .

Most traditional tellings of the birth of Jesus don’t haveactors singing “Kumbaya” and dancing joyfully to thebeat of an African drum, but such is the case at theBarn Dinner Theatre in their performance of LangstonHughes’ Black Nativity, a nontraditional telling of St. Luke’s story filledwith African rhythms, gospel music, dance, poetry and narrative. The joyful performance directed by Hilda Willis is sure to sweep youinto the Christmas spirit with its genius choreography, vibrant costumes,powerful voices and high-energy dancing. In fact, joy is the constanttheme throughout the production as actors and audience alike are compelledto yell, raise their hands and dance in their seats. The storyline actually focuses more on the emotions that surround thenativity story rather than on the story itself. Doing so allows for a morepersonal and jubilant interpretation.The first act of the musical, though told in an African setting, isdevoted to the actual nativity story. It begins with a dozen actors,dressed in colorful traditional African garb, walking as they sing“Kumbaya.” As they enter, they set the scene for an African village;Women enter carrying small baskets on their heads, while others use abroom to sweep their way to the tiny stage. The African drum then chimes in and “Kumbaya” is replaced with arobust display of African dance. The actors do a superb job expressingthe emotions of the story through their bold movements; their exaggeratedfacial expressions draw the audience into their passionate performance.Morgan Addington’s choreography creatively and effectivelymakes use of the small space available onstage.By what seems to be a miracle, 12 actors in perfect rhythm are able toswiftly move in between one another without colliding. The actors moveeach segment of their bodies to the heartbeat of the drum and are able todance as both individuals and a collective unit. In between the lively dance sessions, actors take turns narrating thestory of Joseph and Virgin Mary. Diatra Langford as Mary is able to beltout a beautiful song and at the same time use her facial expressions anda frail stance to express the pain of childbirth. Musical director George Pass complements their dance with a seamlessintermixing of African rhythms, piano-led gospel songs and poeticprose. Traditional Christmas songs, such as “Joy to the World” and“Come All Ye Faithful,” are sung alongside new songs like “WhatchuGonna Name That Baby?” and a poetic “No Good Shepherd Boy.”The second act of the play seems to be a different production entirelyas it fast-forwards from Bethlehem to 21st century Galilee BaptistChurch, stating “The manger is now a church.”The actors re-enter, some dressed in their Sunday best, while othersact as the choir in their robes. Again, they capture the audience assoon as they enter singing “I Know I’ve Been Changed” while clappingand dancing. The entire act resembles a Sunday morning church service, and itwouldn’t be a surprise if an audience member stood up for an altar call.The real beauty in the production lies in the harmonious voices of theactors, who truly bring a gospel choir to l’ife.Actress Ni’Si takes the spotlight in this act as she struts in a brightred dress complete with a church hat that matches her larger-than-lifepersonality. She provides the comedy of the show with her attitude, disapprovingglances and feel-good dancing. Overall, Black Nativity doesn’t express a detailed telling of thenativity story, but instead reemphasizes the true meaning of Christmas.The song lyrics remind us that we should be thankful for what wehave, and the music and dancing remind us of the joy we should celebratethis season.

wanna go?

Black Nativity plays every Sunday and Monday of December at The Barn Dinner Theatre, 120 Stage Coach Trail, Greensboro. Tickets are $40-$45 for adults and $20-$23 for children. For tickets and more information call 336.292.2211 or visit www.barndinner.com.

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