The scent of suntan oil has not entirely lifted, and Ford's Theatre is already preparing us for Christmas. Talk about getting a jump on the holidays!
As its opening show of the season, last night it revived Langston Hughes' 1959 work, "Black Nativity," in a new "streamlined version" -- which seems to have reduced Hughes' contributions to a bare minimum.
There's still a preacher on hand to relate the wondrous birth of Christ. (And in the person of Ned Wright he's a fine figure of a preacher, with a slip of a gray beard that runs down either side of his jaw and meets under his chin, thereby lending the proper note of solemnity to a face made for broadcasting joyous tidings.) There are also a very few patches of dialogue, nothing you'd dare call scenes, drawn from the Bible.
Mostly, though, "Black Nativity" is a succession of 20 gospel songs and Christmas carols, sung with rare gusto by a cast of 14. The show starts out in a church, but before long the singers have traded their poinsettia-red choir robes for biblical garb and are recreating, rather in the manner of a school pageant, the celebrated tableaux. Once Jesus has been born, the shepherds have abandoned their flocks and the magi have delivered their gifts, the cast moves back to church to sing songs of praise and celebration.
It is not an especially felicitous framework, and Ford's is stretching a term to call the work a "gospel-play." "Black Nativity" is a staged concert, and even the occasional choreography by Hope Clarke doesn't change that fact. The biggest chunk of choreography, incidentally, is danced by Mary and Joseph on their way to the inn. The great leaping and stretching it requires of Joseph (Melvin Jones) is one thing, but it's fearfully inappropriate for the pregnant Mary (Agnes Johnson) and her unborn child.
Such decorations, I fear, are consciously artsy and just a little foolish. The one very real justification for this "Black Nativity" is the voices. And, Lord-a-mighty, can this cast sing. With jubilance and gravity, with the kind of lullaby hush that rocks babies and the kind of joyful abandon that rocks rafters. Most of the numbers have been arranged by Howard A. Roberts, who has, among other inventions, filtered "Joy to the World" through a jazz sensibility and imposed a seductive West Indian beat on "Go Tell It on the Mountain." Occasionally, you may have to search for the melody, but the rhythms are invariably finger-snapping good.
If the cast members look vaguely uncomfortable every time the music stops, they begin to pulsate with life at the sight of a tambourine or the first swell from the church organ. Gayle Turner brings plaintive simplicity to "Silent Night," Vanessa Shaw's rich soprano illuminates "Sweet Little Jesus Boy," and David Weatherspoon exults unabashedly in "Wasn't That a Mighty Day." "Rise Up Shepherd" is sung with velvet sobriety by Ann Duquesnay, while Wilbur Archie's exhilaration, as he leads the company through "Last Month of the Year," is not unlike that of the punch-drunk pugilist who's just won the prize fight of his life.
Ford's has a long tradition of gospel shows, and most of them have been built on pretty flimsy structures. "Black Nativity" may have the flimsiest framework of all. And yet I doubt the singing in that historic house has ever been better.
I'm certainly not one to denigrate such a joyful noise. Nonetheless, aren't we rushing things? The company is intoning "O Come All Ye Faithful" and we haven't even sat down to Thanksgiving dinner.
BLACK NATIVITY, by Langston Hughes; directed by Edmund Cambridge; musical director, Howard A. Roberts; choreography, Hope Clarke; costumes, Myrna Colley-Lee; sets, Llewellyn Harrison; lights, Sandra Ross. With Wilbur Archie, Ann Duquesnay, Milton Grayson, Rhetta Hughes, Agnes Johnson, Melvin Jones, Vanessa Shaw, Gayle Turner, David Weatherspoon and Ned Wright.
At Ford's Theatre through Oct. 31.