When celebrated African-American poet, novelist and playwright Langston Hughes’ gospel music-driven production Black Nativity opened Off Broadway in December 1961, it became one of the first African-American written plays ever to be staged there. Performed regularly coast to coast since that time, Black Nativity has charmed TeCo Theatrical Productions’ audiences at Dallas’ Bishop Arts Theatre Center for a decade. Its current incarnation running through December 20th features a dynamic, versatile ensemble of twenty-three men, women, and children. As directed by Jiles R. King II in his TeCo debut, the show exudes a spirit of godly love with exuberant musical expression and luminous presence. Shifting efficiently from scene to scene, King’s cast moves with deliberate elegance, creating evocative stage pictures full of natural grace.
In Act One, the performance portrays the Nativity story as a variety of “storytellers” describe the events through praise dance, familiar gospel music, or folk spirituals, with all characters wearing rich, colorful flowing robes and headdresses indicative of the historical period. Brandon Wilhelm as an earnest, attentive Joseph leads beautiful LaToya L. Blakely as an uncomfortably pregnant Mary to the Inn entrance just right of the stage apron. Imposing Kahlil Donovan, energetic and animated, emphatically tells them “there is no room in the Inn”. Joseph then carefully leads Mary on stage, climbing across a series of stacked platforms to upstage space representing the stable, to await the birth of Jesus, bathed in soft blue light. One of the show’s outstanding soloists, Wilhelm sings a blues-inspired, impassioned “Mary Did You Know”. His singing clearly communicates Joseph’s desperate concern for his wife in a seamless blend with the awe and anticipation of Jesus’ arrival on Earth expressed thematically in the song. His voice soars, tender and exultant with wonder and joy. King’s simple, clear direction allows Wilhelm to excel in portraying this key moment in the work through emotionally intense song.
In Act Two, the entire ensemble retakes the stage, portraying a jubilant congregation seated at a modern day spirit and song-inspired church, dressed in contemporary attire, with men in suits and ties, women in dresses or stylish suit ensembles. Kahlil Donovan leads the cast in this act as a pastor inspired with Holy Spirit. From the Children’s Chorus’ “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” to the deeply evocative “No Ways Tired” and transcendent concluding “Total Praise”, song informs Act Two as an engaging celebration of the birth of Jesus. Storytellers stand and testify throughout, speaking Langston Hughes’ evocative poetry in reinforcement of the spirit-filled song. Under Jiles King’s guidance, TeCo Theatrical Productions breathes an outstanding vitality into Hughes’ complex and challenging Black Nativity, a worthy, unique, artistic contribution to seasonal celebration within this region.
PLAN YOUR LIFE:
Runs through Dec. 20. Bishop Arts Theatre Center. 215 South Tyler Street, Dallas, TX 75208. Seats $18 in advance, $25 at the door (plus service fee). 214-948-0716. http://www.tecotheater.org. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
A version of this review ran 12/15/15 in The Dallas Morning News