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By the time Justice Theater Project opened their annual production of Langston Hughes' historic work Black Nativity on December 13, every night in the rest of their eight-show run had already sold out. This year welcomed new actors, vocalists, and dancers to share in this special Christmas tradition. The first stagings of the piece in 1961 introduced one of the first Off-Broadway works to be staged by an African-American and featured an all-Black cast of 160 performers. Director Deb Royals, artistic director of The Justice Theater Project, honored the tradition of Langston Hughes' work with strong African-American leads while embracing a diverse ensemble of joyful vocalists, young and old, from all walks of life.
Act I opens with an inaugural call and response between percussionist Latif Ezekeil and the enthusiastic narrator, played by Jade Arnold. Act I follows the story of the birth of Christ, infused with traditional African dance, thoughtfully choreographed by Chuck Davis and beautiful African dress, designed by Brenda Allen. Traditional Christmas carols like "Joy to the World," "Go Tell it on the Mountain," and "O Come All Ye Faithful" swelled with soulful gospel sounds as the joyous ensemble celebrated the coming of Christ.
Act II evolves from a celebration of Christ's birth into a full scale worship service packed with powerhouse gospel anthems one after the other, such as "The Presence of the Lord is Here," "Leak in This Old Building," and "Get Away, Jordan." While each soloist sang with soulful inspiration – Sandra Dubose with "No Room in an Inn," Allen Brown with "The Presence of the Lord is Here," Connie McCoy with "Changed," and many other notable talents – this performance was truly an ensemble piece. The sweet choir of children, vivid dancers, and men and women joined together in resonant worship as worship was intended to be.
Black Nativity continues through December 21. For details, see the sidebar. It's wildly successful, so call ahead to see if by chance there's any room left in the proverbial inn.