Archive Review: Black Nativity

From December 2007:

There’s a whole lot of black gay tradition going into the joyous Black Nativity, now playing at the Duke on 42nd St. Originally staged in 1961 Black Nativity is one of the most beloved works of Langston Hughes, the prolific gay leading light of the Harlem Renaissance. The Classical Theatre of Harlem’s new adaptation is loosely set in 1973 Times Square, telling the story of the birth of Christ through the traditional music of the black church with vibrant gospel, R&B, soul and funk arrangements by Kelvyn Bell.

In the first couple of scenes, against a backdrop of lost souls and hustlers on Times Square’s “forty-deuce,” a street corner preacher (out actor André de Shields) rails against the evils of the world he sees around him.

Suddenly we make the transition into an indoor church service on “the deuce,” led by a colorful, charismatic pastor (also de Shields) who popcorns and jives his way through the story of the nativity, with a passionate singing and dancing choir behind him. A series of roof raising songs, dances and sermons deliver Hughes’ non-denominational message that hope and spirituality are ever present and never failing.

There is so much talent on display here it’s almost obscene: every member of the choir could carry a show by themselves. The cast also includes members of the Shangilia Youth Choir from Kenya.  Shangilia (which means “rejoice” in Swahili) is a very successful program which helps Kenya’s most needy children find hope and meaning in their lives through the arts.

But if there is a single reason to see this production of Black Nativity, it’s de Shields –  he’s one of the most dynamic, charismatic and supernaturally gifted performers in musical theater, and that gift is on deliciously abundant and shameless display here. His timing is magic, and he seems to perceive other performers with eyes in the back of his head. One of the best performers alive today at the top of his powers, in a vehicle worthy of his talents.

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