THEATER | Greta Oglesby rivets in Penumbra’s “Black Nativity: A Season for Change”

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Whether or not you were able to see Greta Oglesby’s acclaimed performance in the Guthrie’s Caroline, or Change, you can now enjoy this fantastic performer in Black Nativity: A Season for Change, now playing at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul. Oglesby plays the role of Grandma Walker in the newest version of Penumbra’s annual holiday show, and her riveting portrayal and beautiful voice are worth the price of admission.

The first version of Black Nativity was written in 1961 by renowned poet Langston Hughes. Originally titled Wasn’t it a Mighty Day, it was a groundbreaking production, reimagining the Nativity story with an entirely African-American cast. Penumbra began producing Black Nativity in 1987 and over the years has brought different versions of the gospel musical to the stage. The different incarnations of the play have included setting the story during the Reconstruction period, setting it in Northeast Africa, and most recently, framing the story in modern-day St. Paul. Throughout all of the different versions, the biblical story of Mary and Joseph is used as a metaphor for the African-American experience, according to May Mahala, who is currently working on a book about Penumbra Theatre.

This year’s version tells the story of the Walker family, who have recently lost their patriarch, Henry Walker. Grandma Walker, played by Oglesby, is overtaken by grief by the loss of her husband, and the family is disjointed, with the grandchildren fighting over gifts. The family is visited by a few angels, played by marvelous singers Nicole Foster, DeMarcus T. Green, Dennis W. Spears, and Jennifer Whitlock who plan to bring the spirit back into the household. Spears transforms into the Wanderer, a homeless man who the family finds curled up on their front step. The family offers shelter to the Wanderer, and they tell him the story of the Nativity, portrayed through dance by members of TU Dance Company. At first resistant to the Wanderer, Grandma Walker is eventually won over, and the Christmas spirit is once again restored to the family.

black nativity: a season for change, playing through december 27 at penumbra theatre. for tickets ($10-$60) and information, see penumbratheatre.org.

TU Dance co-artistic director Uri Sands offers some gorgeous choreography performed by Alanna Morris and Marciano Silva Dos Santos, who play Joseph and Mary. Morris in particular wows the audience with her technical skill and hypnotizing use of breath through her movements.

Sanford Moore, of the notable Jazz group Moore by Four, directed the music, arranged most of the songs, and played keyboard for this production. Moore brings a lighthearted touch to the score, and the musicians and singers—including some members of the Sounds of Blackness—seem like they are having a lot of fun with the jazzy arrangements.

While this year’s version of Black Nativity doesn’t carry the emotional punch of other versions I’ve seen at the Penumbra, it has some great tunes and Greta Oglseby helps bring a layer of depth to the story through her character, particularly in her chilling solo “No Room at the Inn.”

If you have never seen a Black Nativity, I highly recommend you check it out this year. It’s a joyful celebration with some great music and wonderful performances.

This event 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 know who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.