It's hard to stage a nativity play without making it seen like, well, a nativity play. It's even tougher to make such a production appealing out of season. But the presentation of "Black Nativity" at Ford's Theater manages to transcend its problems of premise and prematurity via the exuberant talents of its cast.
Originally produced in 1959, Langston Hughes' "gospel song-play" contains a lot more gospel than play. Some of the scenes are interpreted through Hope Clarke's choreography, as danced by Agnes Johnson and Melvin Jones. Most of them are narrated by Ned Wright, who has an unerring instinct for bringing the drama of the pulpit to the stage.
But for "Black Nativity," the song's the thing. When Vanessa Shaw summons the first bell-clear tones of "In Times Like These," little chills play arpeggios on the spine, and the gooseflesh doesn't let up until the 14-member cast has closed Act II with a rapt, near-riotous "Joy to the World." Musical director Howard A. Roberts has infused very traditional gospel songs like "Most Done Travelin'" and "Wasn't That a Mighty Day," as well as worn-out carols like "Silent Night" and "Oh, Come All Ye Faithful," with Jazz, blues and even Caribbean variations, and the result is nothing short of stunning.
The problems with "Black Nativity" are all visual. When the cast joins Wright to sing and shout amens to his commanding narrative in one corner of the stage and the dancers act out the story in another, the result is simply a distracting hodge-podge. And it's fine for Johnson to dance around with an imaginary baby in her arms, but when she next appears, the air-drawn Jesus has acquired some real-life swaddling. Someone should decide just how much of this story should take place in the minds and memories of the audience.
Yet I suspect the purpose of this production is less that of telling the age-old Christmas tale than of getting across its universal message of joy, a task at which it succeeds quite well. When Milton grayson and company let loose with "Oh, Come All Ye Faithful," it's hard to suppress a shout of elation.
Which is what the black experience has always brought to faith, of course. In times like these, when religion has largely regressed to the bloodless, tyrannical state it maintained in America's puritanical beginnings, the joy inherent in gospel music goes a long way toward uplifting the human spirit.
"Black Nativity" may not be much on action, flash or timeliness, but its music is a message that knows no season. This is one play you could see with your eyes closed.
THE PLAY -- "Black Nativity," through October 31 at Ford's Theater.