Black Nativity: TeCo’s Christmas Essence Celebration

My seeking has been to explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America and obliquely that of all human kind.” Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

2011 cast of "Black Nativity", Michele-Renee in foreground

Christmastime at TeCo Theatrical Productions means a rich, unique performance experience, based in a yearly, expressive tradition. Adjacent to the Bishop Arts District in Oak Cliff, TeCo entertains, educates and serves over 15,000 children, adults and thespian artists every year with culturally relevant and diverse productions. Through December 18, 2011, TeCo presents African-American poet, activist and playwright Langston Hughes’ retelling of the Nativity story, Black Nativity. The original show, in all Gospel style, debuted on Broadway December 11, 1961. It was one of the first African-American written plays to appear on Broadway and featured 160 performers arranged by age group and vocal range with full orchestration.

TeCo Theatrical Productions’ 2011 adaptation features twenty-five traditional Christmas hymns and holiday songs, interpreted in Gospel, Jazz, pop and upbeat funky styles, all accessible to a modern audience. Its diverse cast of nineteen exuberantly fills the stage and both aisles of the theatre with vibrant vocals, charm and holiday magic. From the youngest performer (honor Universal Academy student Keyana McNeill) to seasoned regional professionals like Michele-Renee and Akron Watson, the ensemble clearly tells the essential Christmas story in song, dance and mime while weaving the music throughout in a festive, pleasing manner.

For the 2011 production, TeCo’s Artistic Director Teresa Wash engaged national playwright/producer Donnie F. Wilson to revitalize the show, locating it in a fantasy New Orleans and adding in Christmas classic songs.  Regional professional LisaAnne Haram co-directed with Dallas Observer “Best Jazz Act” nominated Damon C. Clark as music director and Perpetual Motions’ Artistic Director JuNene K. choreographing. Using the theatre’s full proscenium space as well as its apron and audience aisles for scenes, entrances and exits, the show keeps the audience on its toes with rapid-fire transitions and mood shifts. The action remains fast-paced while the story remains vivid. The clearly defined stage pictures created under a huge stylized star hanging on high in upstage screen projection are natural, effective and memorable.

As narrator, Amir Razavi, (a Booker T. Washington graduate and former Dallas Theater Center intern), keeps the audience focused on the Nativity elements with his lively storytelling style, infectious grin and mischievous charm. Akron Watson (production Assistant Director) and JuNene K. play warmly together as a modern day Mary and Joseph. Their solos (“Mary Did You Know” and “Breath of Heaven”) establish the special nature of each character with sincere reverence and soaring vocals. Madeline Fortner brings in a sultry New Orleans essence and soulfulness as Jazz Singer. Her talents as a nationally recognized vocalist shine in “No Room”, “Let It Snow”, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Here Comes Santa Claus”. Stephen Warren keeps the audience aware of contemporary social issues as Homeless Man and No Good Shepherd Boy. Bennie Adkins, Rebekah Wade and Jonathan Simon depict Joseph and Mary in modern dance and introduce a touch of mime, adding haunting, magical physical elements to the production.  The strong vocal harmonies of the Townsfolk (Janet McNeil, Rachelle Wilson, Mei Monae, Tommy King and Keyana McNeil) and the evocative movements of the elegantly attired Praise Dancer (Savanah Jackson) keep the Gospel underpinnings of the show intact. Michele-Renee and Kenneisha Thompson bring humorous commentary to the production as Town Gossip and Teacher/ Ana Skeptic.

Langston Hughes

Honoring the spirit and essence of Langston Hughes’ ground-breaking work, TeCo Theatrical Productions’ Black Nativity makes it relevant and engaging for 21st century audiences, a dignified, universal Christmas story celebration told from an African-American perspective. Perhaps in future years, TeCo will incorporate live musical accompaniment.

The cast includes Malcolm Underwood, Jimmy Prewitt and Damion D. Rush. Lighting design by Brooks Powers, costume design by Angel Templat and Brandon Smith. Black Nativity ran December 14-18, 2011. For information on TeCo Theatrical Productions’ ongoing programming or to support the company’s educational outreach, go to www.tecotheater.org or call (214) 948-0716.

About Langston Hughes: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Langston_Hughes

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