An enthusiastic audience recently filled the exquisite New Freedom Theatre for a re-imagined production of “Black Nativity: An African Holiday Musical Play,” and as someone who has covered the repertory company for nearly 20 years, I could feel that it was a brand-new day on North Broad Street.
Playing in the John E. Allen Jr. Theatre through Dec. 18, the refreshing presentation also helps celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary under a new artistic director.
Written and directed by artistic director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj and featuring a simple but dramatic rotating bi-level set, the musical tells the parallel stories of two couples: the biblical Mary and Joseph as well as a couple with the same names having a baby and living in a refugee camp in the Darfur region of Sudan.
Darfur Mary (Lauren Mogan) is heavily pregnant and has just gone into labor. Her husband, Darfur Joseph (James Pitts Jr.) has been missing.
When Mary refuses to give birth until her husband has returned safely, she is visited by the angel Gabriel (Danzel Thompson-Stout), who takes her back in time to the evening of the birth of the Christ child. Upon meeting biblical Mary (Leedea Harrison) and biblical Joseph (Jordan Dobson), Darfur Mary is challenged to trust in God’s grace and power to get her through the birth of her child and the hardships that come with living in modern-day Darfur.
With her new-found faith, Darfur Mary returns to the present and gives birth.
The entire production was performed to the sound of a single African drum, expertly played by Lo McDowell, and featured such Christmas classics as “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “Silent Night,” “Do You Hear What I Hear,” “O Holy Night,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.”
There were also the sacred standards “Amazing Grace” “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “His Eye on the Sparrow” in the repertoire.
This is a sincere and sensitive effort by Maharaj, who has a deep and genuine concern for the people, particularly the women, of Darfur. However, I believe that the parallel story lines may have been a bit confusing for some, and while it’s always good to hear Christmas classics, several of the songs could have been cut without affecting the continuity or impact of the production.
My deepest concern is that some of the cast members are over-singing, and are at serious risk of losing their voices before the end of the run. As Darfur Mary, Lauren Morgan spends quite a bit or her time crying out in anguish (“There is no God in Darfur!”), and singing at full volume. I’d advise her to be careful.
I was most impressed by the fact that every member of the ensemble could both sing and dance. While some were better at singing and others excelled in dance, everyone appeared to be equally comfortable doing both. A challenging and spectacular amalgamation of African, hip-hop and contemporary dance, the choreography by Sanchel Brown, Julian Darden, Majaraj and cast member Danzel Thompson-Stout was performed to perfection by the young artists, who absolutely radiated the sheer joy of dance.
With vibrant costumes by Marley Boone, heart-felt performances, and a palpable spirit and commitment that permeates the entire cast and crew, “Black Nativity” symbolizes a new direction and a new vision for Freedom Theatre at 1346 N Broad St.
For tickets and information, call (888) 802-8998 or visit freedomtheatre.org.