On a restless evening, director Ozzie Jones took to the stage with the poise of a southern preacher, his presence demanding silence. With a red velvet curtain behind him, he cleared his throat, grabbed the mike from its stand and commenced sermonizing.
"I want all of you here to feel free to shout and praise the way you see fit, because this is bigger than a play," he said. "This is about black people claiming their culture."
"Hallelujah," said a woman in the audience.
"Amen," said another.
A slow rumble of applause started to work its way through the almost-full house and grew into an enormous ovation.
With that, Jones walked to the side of the stage, the velvet wall went up and his version of the Langston Hughes classic "Black Nativity," a retelling of the birth of Christ set in an African village, began.
The play and Jones made their debuts at their new home--the Lincoln Theatre on U Street NW--last Thursday. In October, the Kennedy Center announced it would no longer carry the play, which had sold out shows at the Terrace Theater for the past five years.
"They--referring to the Kennedy Center--told us that they had to make budget cuts and were going to eliminate plays. We were a part of that elimination," said Mike Malone, who directed the "Black Nativity" performances at the Kennedy Center.
"We submitted a budget [to the Kennedy Center] that was under the cost, but I don't think it was enough for them," Malone said.
Said Deneene Brockington, director of marketing and sales for the Lincoln Theatre: "When I heard that the play was no longer at the Kennedy Center, I started to make provisions to have it here. We have to have 'Black Nativity' in the Chocolate City. The play needs to be here."
Jocelyn Russell, who works with the Lincoln Theatre, had worked with Jones at the Freedom Theater in Philadelphia, where his version of "Black Nativity" had been nominated for local theater awards.
So Jones brought his play to Washington--with some major changes. By infusing some '90s adaptations in the script written by Hughes in 1961, Jones set out to break down some of the stereotypes that surround African American theater, especially shows more commonly tied to the "Chittlin' Circuit"--small venues in which many productions get their starts.
"Most of those plays make a mockery of the church and its importance in the black community," Jones said. "I'm sure those shows are entertaining, but how many people leave wanting to take action?"
There was no elaborate set or major costume changes, just a huge, leafless tree branch suspended from the ceiling by a rope and a projection-screen backdrop that illuminated the lifeless limbs. The only indication that the first act is set in Africa were the African printed headwraps and flowing garb that the actors wore because they spoke in '90s American slang. When Joseph, played by D. Sabela Grimes, went looking for help from the shepherds during Mary's difficult pregnancy, he was told, "Naw, man, I can't help you."
After the birth of the "New Crowned Prince," Joseph, Mary and the nine shepherds ran down an array of possible names for the baby. Slowly the dancing shepherds became a "shepherd hoedown" as they formed a semicircle and began hand-clapping and toe-tapping as each took his turn in the middle.
After coaxing from the cast, audience member Glennard Walker, 12, a seventh-grader at Jefferson Junior High School, made his way to the stage. Glennard, standing in the middle of the shepherds' celebration, began to display his dancing talents, ending with a moonwalk across the stage.
After intermission and a soul-stirring a cappella medley by gospel artist Vanessa Bell Armstrong that brought the house down, the play changed its pace and opened at a church service for members--the nine shepherds, Mary and Joseph.
It's safe to say this isn't the same "Black Nativity" that Langston Hughes wrote. Hughes's play focuses on the celebration of Christmas, from an African American perspective. Jones's second act features a pastor seeking testimonies from members of a '90s church.
For some audience members who had seen Malone's rendition, the Jones version lacked the elaborate design and creative spirit of a holiday celebration.
"This version didn't have anything to do with Christmas. I understand that it was a different director. The second half was lackluster. It wasn't a play, it was a musical. I normally e-mail my friends telling them to check it out; I won't be doing that this year," said Willie Benjamin, 34, a meeting planner for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, who had seen all five productions at the Kennedy Center.
"I don't celebrate Christmas; I was here for the performance," said Ava Parker, 47, who had seen one of the Kennedy Center shows. "There just wasn't a lot of talent here."
Half of the cast members were not professionals actors. Jones said he intentionally hired amateurs because he was trying to capture the actual feel of church.
"I wanted to be honest. A lot of times when you see plays, they have every hallelujah scripted," he said. "I didn't want it to feel like a performance."
CAPTION: Princess Kamura Mhoon as Mary and D. Sabela Grimes as Joseph in Langston Hughes's "Black Nativity," which moved from the Kennedy Center to the Lincoln Theatre.
CAPTION: Mhoon and Grimes dance during the performance. Director Ozzie Jones tried to update the 1961 play.
CAPTION: Shaun L. Johnson, second from left, sings "Joy to the World." He played a shepherd in the production.