THEATER | Penumbra Theatre's "Black Nativity: Now's the Time" keeps family in focus

Photo courtesy Penumbra Theatre

I admittedly wasn't in a very Christmasy mood as I headed to St. Paul's Penumbra Theatre for opening night of Black Nativity: Now's the Time last Friday. It wasn't even December yet, after all, and leftover Thanksgiving turkey was still occupying space in my fridge. But I dare you to sit through even just 15 minutes of this annual musical celebration and not feel at least a little Christmas spirit sneak into your soul.

Black Nativity isn't your typical theater experience: during the pre-show reception we were told not to "sit on our hands" during the performance; we were encouraged to join in the festivities as the spirit moved us. While the audience didn't stray too far from our conservative Midwestern roots, there was a good deal of hand-clapping and a dash of cheering and hollering as the cast progressed through a series of musical pieces on stage. I felt moved to holler for another reason during the first couple songs as the music overshadowed the singing narration, making it difficult to discern the lyrics. "Turn the music down; I want to hear the voices!" I wanted to say. My wish was partially granted; the musical accompaniment evened out as the show progressed, but still didn't allow the powerful voices to grab the starring role they deserved.

black nativity: now's the time, presented through december 26 at penumbra theatre. for tickets and information, see penumbratheatre.org.

Black Nativity's story was much sparser than I anticipated. Outside of a couple lines of dialogue between songs here and there, the narrative unfolded as three generations of Walkers sang their way through a family Christmas celebration. Many of the songs were based on traditional carols like "Go Tell It On The Mountain" and "Joy to the World," but we also got some jazzed-up tunes like "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus." The actors transmitted both joy and sorrow through these selections, but the source of their emotional conflict wasn't always clear. The audience was forced to piece together a story from glances exchanged between characters during songs, and hints in old photographs flashed on a large screen above the fireplace. At a run time of 75 minutes, I would have appreciated even 15 more minutes of dialogue to help engage us in the narrative.

Ultimately, however, Black Nativity is about lively and heartfelt song and dance performances. After an underwhelming beginning, the show took a turn for the better as its two youngest stars—Samia Bultler and Jackson Hurst—performed a spirited take of "Little Drummer Boy." These are clearly talented kids, and they invigorated the show with a young energy, appearing very comfortable on stage. The cast of angels who descended from the heavens to lend an unseen hand to the Walkers also had a special sparkle. Led by Dennis W. Spears (who I would have liked to hear more comedy from), they added a vocal power and exuberance that really engaged the audience.

We were also treated to spectacular dance performance from Alanna Morris (as "Mary") and Marciano Silva Dos Santos (as "Joseph") that conveyed not only the technical skill of the dancers, but the themes of longing and grace present in the original Nativity story. A particularly moving moment came when the mid-generation Walker woman (played by Ginger Commodore) provided a cappella accompaniment to Mary's dance, while cradling the baby (presumably The Baby) in her arms. I'm convinced most of the other singers on stage could have carried their own songs with minimal instrumentation, and hope to have the chance to see a more stripped-down version of their vocal performances in the future.

While I only saw a few kids in the audience the night I was there, they seemed to wholeheartedly enjoy the show. Black Nativity strikes me as a perfect holiday outing for a family, with appeal across age and generations, and virtually no content a parent would find objectionable. It's a wholesome way to kick off the holiday season, with its reminder of how family is at the center of what Christmas is all about.

This production is featured in the Daily Planet's complete guide to holiday theater. Throughout the holiday season, the guide will be updated with links to new Daily Planet reviews—so you'll know who's been naughty and who's been nice.
270 N. Kent St.
Saint Paul, MN 55102
651-224-3180

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Thanks for this helpful

Thanks for this helpful review!

Descriptive and insightful for evaluating this as a possible outing with elementary aged kids and grandparents.