Grace Notes

Part Christmas pageant, part tent revival, Jubilee Theatre's jubilant Black Nativity could make a heathen care about the reason for the season. So full of the spirit are these heavenly hosts—a cast of 11 actor-singers, including Jubilee stalwarts Robert Rouse and Janice L. Jeffery—that when the production in the 147-seat theater near downtown Fort Worth's Sundance Square segues from narrative musical in the first act to full-out sermonizing in the second, the audience is swept right along with foot-stomping fervor.

Theater in the Middle Ages grew out of the dramatized retelling of Bible stories. That medieval simplicity and purity of purpose permeates Black Nativity, written by poet Langston Hughes to include New Testament passages, gospel music and personal testimonies. This is the Nativity story interpreted from a black perspective, with the score incorporating old-time church music and European carols. The gospel songs are the most stirring, and they're crowd favorites too. It isn't often that you hear "Amen!" shouted toward a theater stage, but you'll hear it plenty at this one.

You'll also hear a lot of great singing, starting with Rouse's show-opening rendition of "Joy to the World." One of his solos in the second act, "I Just Can't Keep It to Myself," gets a James Brown growl thrown in now and then. Rouse also takes a convincing turn as a preacher, scooting his feet in a way that both comically comments on and seriously pays tribute to the real thing.

Actress and director Guinea Bennett-Price, co-founder of Dallas' Soul Rep Theatre Company, makes her Jubilee directing debut with this production. She keeps the cast moving quickly from vignette to vignette, and she's created some striking visual tableaux. One of Jubilee's rising stars, Sheran Goodspeed-Keyton, choreographed the show.

Black Nativity, acting out a story most of us know by heart, soars when it dares to be a little irreverent. At one point in the second act, the pianist, Melanie C. Bivens, hops off her stool stage left, throws herself into a fit of ecstatic dancing and launches into a goosebump-raising version of "Get Away Jordan" in a voice that says in no uncertain terms that she is telling you she's not going into that river, huh-uh.

Not all the singers among the cast are as powerful as Bivens, Rouse and Jeffery, but it hardly matters. What one lacks in vocals, he or she makes up for in the acting or dancing. The ensemble plays to each other's strengths. Best of all, they express what appears to be a personal connection to the material, particularly the testimonies in the second half, which feel so much like a church service that the cast could go ahead and pass that brass collection plate right up into the crowd and probably get it back filled to the brim.

This has been a productive year of rebuilding for Jubilee Theatre. Company founder Rudy Eastman died in 2005, but under new artistic director Edward G. Smith, the theater, now in its 26th season, has continued to grow in some new and exciting ways. Their recent production of August Wilson's drama Joe Turner's Come and Gone was one of the best-acted productions in a Dallas or Fort Worth theater this year. Coming in January is Crumbs from the Table of Joy, Jubilee's first production of work by award-winning black playwright Lynn Nottage. In March, Ed Smith directs Cookin' at the Cookery, a bio-musical about legendary jazz singer Alberta Hunter.

Meanwhile, if you wonder why people spilling out of Jubilee Theatre onto Main Street this month look so happy, it's because they've just been immersed in the joyful noise of Black Nativity.

The gentle and uplifting presentation of Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory in Theatre Three's downstairs space, Theatre Too, doesn't mess around with a good thing. Director Jeffrey Schmidt lets the author's words do most of the work, with veteran actors Jerry Haynes and Sally Cole and youngster Chance Jonas-O'Toole moving quietly so as not to disturb the peace of the piece. The pace is unrushed, the voices whispery in this autobiographical play about a little boy nicknamed "Buddy" and his sweet relationship with a childlike maiden aunt whom he calls "My Friend."

The story comes from Capote's childhood. It is the 1930s, when he lived with his aunt and other relatives in a house with no other children nearby. The play finds Buddy and the aunt making dozens of whiskey-soaked fruitcakes just as they do every winter in their little country kitchen. Out come the "windfall pecans" gathered from a neighbor's yard. Into the big bowl are dumped candied fruit, raisins, sugar and flour.

To buy the ingredients, the woman and the boy have saved $13 in small change, a penny and nickel at a time. When their moonshine whiskey supplier, "Mr. Ha Ha Jones" ("They call him that because he's so gloomy"), waives his fee in return for the promise of a fruitcake, it is a blessing Buddy and his pal can hardly believe.

This is a lovely little one-act, just about 40 minutes long, that's as nice to listen to as it is to watch. Capote's elegant but unpretentious word choices caress the ear as Haynes reads them story-theater style. Listen for "festooned" and "japonica" and "satsumas."

"Dusk turns the window into a mirror," Capote writes. The aunt dons "a flannel nightgown that smells of last winter's cough syrup." When the pair head out to cut down a Christmas tree, they pick one described as "a brave, handsome brute."

Elaborate sets aren't needed when you get built-in décor like that, but the simple table and old-timey stove in Theatre Too do the job of setting the scene. The white-paneled backdrop, also designed by Schmidt, reveals a series of moving shadows that become integral to the story line.

Toward the end, A Christmas Memory jumps forward in time to when Capote moved away from his beloved aunt. Here, Haynes best uses the avuncular tone of voice familiar to generations of Dallas children from the actor's decades on the air as WFAA-Channel 8 children's show host "Mr. Peppermint." There are sorrowful turns in the story, and Haynes, now in his late 70s, makes sure to soften the impact by working into the sad bits gradually.

As an escape from the rush-rush of the holidays, this production delivers the audience back to a distant but still familiar time and place, with the story providing a satisfying emotional payoff at the end. To get to Memory, unfortunately, you have to sit through a silly 15-minute curtain-raiser called A Christmas to Forget by Dallas writer Erik Knapp. It's about a Santa (Haynes) suffering a temporary bout of amnesia. Can't recall much else about that one, which is probably just as well. A Christmas Memory is the one worth remembering.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner

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