Peruse the online newspapers of major American cities in December, and it's clear that Langston Hughes' 1961 Black Nativity is almost as ubiquitous within African-American communities as all the varieties of A Christmas Carol are to so many Anglo playgoers. Cleveland, Philadelphia, Seattle, Fort Worth, and Washington, D.C., have long-existent black theater troupes that depend on what one critic describes as "the Afro sheen [Hughes] has applied" to the Western world's grimy manger staple. At the close of 2000, North Texas had dueling casts performing the musical in separate productions. One was at the South Dallas Cultural Center, where director Willie Minor pretty much transplanted his congregation, including choir and pastor, whole from church to arts center. Fort Worth's Jubilee Theatre, meanwhile, offered its own perennially stately, solemn, sometimes strained version. If Hughes is up there somewhere eyeballing all of this, watch out for his dropping jaw; 40 years ago, could he have anticipated the popularity of a black Jesus in the Texas buckle of the Bible Belt?
The poet and playwright's lifelong artistic mission, to draw no distinctions between his personal experience and the black American experience--indeed, to obliterate the idea that such a division existed at all--perhaps helps explain why he's more often revived and quoted than his Harlem Renaissance peers Countee Cullen and Jean Toomer. His works are more spacious and elastic or, if you want to discuss them pejoratively, more vague. It's easier for the reader and audience member to find themselves in his words because there's so little of Langston in there. In Black Nativity as with much of his verse, he scrubbed away the taint of personal detail and reminiscence to portray what he believed were the uniting factors in the lives of slave descendants. The centrality of the church service in general and the lessons of poverty and discrimination in the story of Christ's birth specifically are presented as templates or frameworks rather than fully fleshed-out theatrical creatures. There are no long, glorious passages of verse similar to the best of Langston Hughes' poems; its success is entirely dependent on the musical, movement, and narrative skills of the performers. Intentional though this flatness on paper may be, you get the impression that Sundays singing in the pews were as foreign to him as some Tocquevillian observer chronicling the customs of another people. He had been enjoying enormous literary success for almost three decades by the time he was moved to write Black Nativity, reportedly based more on what he saw in 1950s Harlem congregations than any childhood memories of church in Joplin, Missouri. In setting himself up as a recorder of the universalities of African-American life, Hughes stepped out of them and rendered them remote, if pristine.
The latter are two adjectives that might be applied to Jubilee Theatre's current staging under the direction of Rudy Eastman and his musical muse Joe Rogers. Since Langston Hughes had given these artists such a wide-open field in which to make their own fun, I came expecting something rawer, sweatier, and above all, more vocally accomplished than what's showcased here--something along the lines of last year's Biblical riffs Book of Job and Travelin' Shoes, which despite some minor flaws consistently reached church-rafter heights of humor and sadness. We're just now able to set down the crushing weight of goodwill from the quadruple threat of Christmas-Hanukkah-Kwanzaa-Ramadan; their totalitarian warm glow tends to knock the comic and dramatic wind out of stage stories. Cognizant of the pressure to entertain every last family member in the audience, from snoring grandpa to floating fetus, the 10-member cast of Black Nativity (with pounding, rolling, playful piano accompaniment by Melanie Bivens) is terribly cautious in its joyousness. Some of my disappointment has to do with the high standards to which Jubilee Theatre has conditioned me to hold their musical revues--their revolving roster of stars such as Robert Rouse, Kevin Haliburton, Carolyn Hatcher, and Sheran Goodspeed-Keyton smashes down the barrier between acting and singing that ruins the tone and tempo of so much musical theater. The whole performer package--body, posture, face, expression--gets poured into every number; the mood and pace are established early and sustained without need to play connect-the-songs by megaphoning their characters' thoughts and feelings. Jubilee lets the music take over, and previous results have been more deliriously spiritual than anything you get to see in Black Nativity, whose first act sees a Harlem man and his soon-to-deliver wife turned away by fancy hotels but pampered under the care of followers to the newborn king (blah blah blah, you know the story). After intermission, all pretense of plot is abandoned and we're dropped with hymn list into a church service. The cast doffs costumer Crickett Pettigrew's Afrocentric stripes and patterns and dons gilded choir gowns to clap and sway through the likes of "Holy Ghost Don't Leave Me" and "Packin' Up." The transition is a tad abrupt, and the playwright gives the director and performers even fewer instructions on where to take their production than he did in the first act.
Jubilee Theatre, 506 Main St., Fort Worth
Through January 7 (817) 338-4411
In response, the cast of Black Nativity pretty much stands in place and politely delivers. "No-Good Shepherd Boy" does yield some chortles when it gets loose and coltish, with Demetrius D. Ethley mischievously circling the edge of the small stage area to demonstrate the attention-deficient goof-off who plays hooky from work to see the new baby. But though there's nary a slack pair of lungs in the house, several of the performers don't have the outsized personality to sufficiently rattle the thin blueprint lines the playwright provides. "Leak in the Building," the story of one man accepting his own sinfulness, should've been raucous, but David Patterson's comic flourishes are small and hesitant. Ditto to Tanjala Porter, a youthful Jubilee newcomer whose stylized dance steps feel like an abrupt downshift to an earnest college performance.
Two of the aforementioned list of Jubilee luminaries--Carolyn Hatcher and Sheran Goodspeed-Keyton--are on hand to shine occasionally along with Victoria Morgan, whose relative reserve on "The Blood Saved Me" actually worked as an alternative to the belt-till-you're-hoarse treatment it usually gets. There was one moment of undeniable greatness that demonstrated how truly modest the gifts in Jubilee's current Black Nativity are, how much more stirring it could be if carefully cast with the best from the theater's stable. You shouldn't be surprised that it came from the divine Carolyn Hatcher, whom director Rudy Eastman aptly describes as a triple-threat--she can sing, she can move, and she can act. She's the pure essence of that patented Jubilee process that flows all three together into theater that expresses itself as a life force, an energy that can't be contained. I don't mean to suggest that Hatcher went over the top with her heartbreaking rendition of "Sweet Little Jesus Boy." Quite the contrary. It's a ballad, and she respected it as such with simple hand gestures and tender pauses. The regret and contrition she displayed in a song that apologizes to the baby Jesus for treating him so shabbily with a manger birth was repeatedly explained with one soft, helpless little excuse of a lyric--"We didn't know who you were." By the third time Hatcher half-whispered it, she was pulling water from her eyes and ours.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Dallas and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.