The soloists in Penumbra Theatre’s “Black Nativity” are more poignant this year, perhaps because the story of a family seeking refuge in a hostile land seems more relevant than ever.
Current events, the enduring power of a faith that gives hope to the hopeless and a desire to exceed themselves artistically all help explain why singers such as Greta Oglesby and Yolande Bruce are so beautifully affecting in Penumbra’s annual holiday show, which opened Thursday in St. Paul. The singers’ moving renditions of songs such as “No Room at the Inn” and “O, Jerusalem in the Morning” were enough to evoke tears, and, at least in one viewer, images of kids running from tear gas at the border.
The story of outcasts seeking refuge is an evergreen common to humanity. Poet Langston Hughes re-set it in the home of the brave in his 1961 oratorio “Black Nativity,” relating the Christ narrative to Jim Crow America. Using gospel music and dance, it tells of a rejected couple giving birth to the light of the world.
Penumbra has done the show for decades now, tinkering with its elements while maintaining its gospel-infused sense of celebration. Jennifer Whitlock returns as narrator for a second year in director Lou Bellamy’s simple but spirited production, intoning like a holy-rolling preacher as she stands in front of a large Nativity-themed quilt. Whitlock does not mention any current events, but lines about “no room at the inn” and “the government shall be on their shoulders” underscore parallels between the news of the day and of two millenniums ago.
Backed by a tight quintet (led by Sanford Moore) and the insistent, honey-dripping harmonies of the eight-member Kingdom Life Church Choir, the singers take turns giving us the emotions of a journey that starts with a desperate search for shelter and ends with the birth of a star-hailed child.
Oglesby sings from deep in her soul about the fulfillment of prophecy. Bruce sounds like she’s singing about her own beloved baby in “Sweet Little Jesus Boy.”
The soloists never compete. That’s not what this holiday show is about. But on “O, Jerusalem,” Oglesby and Bruce, along with quavering happy-dancer Dennis Spears and crystalline soprano Deborah Finney, take turns trilling and thrilling — a kind of showmanship that brings the number to the edge of a sing-off. Choir member Brandon Jackson stands out, too, delivering with poise and joy on the opening number.
While Penumbra has kept the feel and essence of “Black Nativity” intact, Moore has rearranged parts of some songs, making them tighter or jazzier or more soulful. He also underscores Whitlock’s narration, adding to the show’s liturgical feel.
The emotions of “Nativity” flow from the singers’ voices and are embodied by the dancers. This year’s cast includes a new dancer, St. Louis native Jacob Lewis, who plays the role of Joseph opposite Taylor Collier’s beautifully expressively Mary. Both are members of the St. Paul company TU Dance, whose co-founder, Uri Sands, choreographed the show’s two dance segments.
Collier, portraying Mary for the fourth year, is a font of grace, vulnerability and light who makes a strong connection with the audience. Lewis grew in poise on opening night, lifting Collier in a show of strength for a show that’s all about grace and light.
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