Joyful noise

If some doubted that the 20th-century black Sunday sermon doubled as spectacular theater, a story distributed last month on the Associated Press wire should convince otherwise.

Apparently, African-American evangelical Christian churches in upstate New York have become hot tourist stops for Europeans vacationing in America. Tourist buses have made Sunday sermons a regular part of their routes, and church leaders have been forced to accommodate dozens of white strangers who snap their cameras and clap their hands during the sermon. One black minister admitted that, while the tourists tended to tithe generously when the collection plate was passed, he still felt it was a bit like being the featured animals "in a jungle safari."

These misgivings are understandable, but in the name of good neighbor etiquette, African-Americans should develop tolerance for that hapless species that ranks a close second on the annoyance scale behind white bigots who don't think they're bigots--white liberals who harbor the secret, possibly racist, ultimately harmless belief that African-Americans are musically superior to Anglos.

With some embarrassment, I must confess to membership in the latter group--especially where gospel music is concerned. As a devout non-Christian who'd rather undergo dental surgery without anesthesia than sit through one Sandi Patty song, I can only explain in abstract, wussy critical terms why a large percentage of my CD collection is devoted to Marion Williams, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, The Staple Singers, Andre Crouch, and other titans of black gospel.

Drama is the best word to describe the traditional spirituals and contemporary compositions recorded by many of these musicians. The fundamental element of all drama is conflict, and African-American gospel portrays self-doubt, loss of faith, betrayal, and other universal human dilemmas in starker terms than white Christian singers, who don't rely on Jesus to carry them through earthly troubles as much as help them pretend those troubles don't exist. (Before she became the exquisite secular songstress known as Sam Phillips, Leslie Phillips came closest to summoning the thorns that exist among all those lovely smelling roses advertised by born-again Christians.)

New Arts Six, the Dallas-based, all-female black sextet, understands that, if presented with knowledge and ability, black gospel requires very little adaptation to succeed in theatrical terms. They've often been tagged as musical educators, these women who've presented loosely structured, intimately detailed combinations of words and music that remind us how Bessie Smith, Mahalia Jackson, and Whitney Houston all exist on the same clear, complex spectrum.

Having seen them perform twice before, however, I have observed that the members of New Arts Six are clearly interested in far more than museum tours of classic American music. To be sure, they are conservative, even coy, by the standards of black theatrical rabble-rousers as diverse as August Wilson and Suzan-Lori Parks. They discuss the past far more than the future, but that tendency reveals their worldview as surely as the shock tactics of an avant-garde performer would. Eternity, as the late Joseph Campbell observed, is the understanding that past, present, and future are seamless, that every second--every heartbeat--contains all three. New Arts Six exists to illustrate this truth, using traditional musical strokes as jolts of recognition to link the spiritual maladies of our own age with those from the past.

Langston Hughes' Black Nativity is the holiday show they've performed for three years under the auspices of Theatre Three. Hughes clearly was concerned with locating the thread that separates and unites past and present, because the two acts of Black Nativity happen in very different times. The first recounts the birth of Christ, complete with empty inns, bored shepherds, and reverent wise men; the more exciting second part recreates a 1930s Sunday service in which a female preacher must compete with her congregation members when it comes to pure, passionate testimony.

The nativity part of Black Nativity features singers Glenda Cole Clay, Margaret James, Dorothy Regina Powell, and Gale Washington Tyler as well as narrator Cynthia Dorn Navarette navigating familiar New Testament turf in the story of Joseph and the pregnant Mary's journey to Bethlehem, where they must eventually board in a stable so Mary can deliver her child.

It's during this first act that New Arts Six enlists outside help from six very young outsiders who portray Mary, Joseph, three shepherds, three wise men, and one no-good, womanizing shepherd (Quincy Roberts, whose bass delivery on a song about betraying women is a highlight of the piece).

Unfortunately, the rest of the young performers don't work too hard to display much onstage conviction. Navarette, her head and body swaddled in Middle Eastern rags, delivers the story of Christ's birth with measured gravity and humor, but too often seems to be carrying, not complementing, the inexperienced actors who are supposed to portray her words.

The second half of Black Nativity will reward your patience, as Navarette, Clay, James, Powell, and Tyler bedeck themselves in Bruce Coleman's elegant '30s churchwear--all lace gloves and hats with flowers and other flourishes. Cynthia Dorn Navarette superbly plays the woman minister, the four other vocalists her congregation. Monya Davis Logan contributes backstage with live accompaniment.

As with any New Arts Six show, the music is the meat of the event. Glenda Cole Clay, Margaret James, Dorothy Regina Powell, and Gale Washington Tyler perform each spiritual with agility and caution. Although I'd love to see them loosen up a bit more from the preview performance I saw, their perfect-pitch voices, sometimes solo but more often in unison, rendered every number as flawlessly as birdsong. There were highlights, of course: "When Was Jesus Born?" finds each vocalist enlisting the other in a scintillating tour of the calendar. "What You Gonna Name the Baby?" takes us, with Navarette's help, through the various biblical monikers for Jesus: The Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace, Emmanuel. "The Blood Saved Me" is one of those rhythmic gospel shuffles with a chorus like molasses, and the gang makes every lyric go down like a shot of top-shelf rum.

At the performance I saw, a row of young African-American men and women all but snored during much of the show, which reminded me that, even as white America has embraced Christian conservatism as a desperate antidote to spiritual malaise, many in the black community have turned away from Christian teachings. Hip hop, Farrakhan, and Afrocentrism have stepped in to serve that need. It's hard to say exactly how relevant New Arts Six and Black Nativity are to millennial black America, but the pure theatricalism of both transcends cultural flux.

Black Nativity runs through December 24. Call (214) 871-3300.

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Jimmy Fowler

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