Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity” has been called a “song-play,” and that’s as good a term as any for this 1961 work, which often seems more like a concert (with dramatic interludes) than a traditional musical.
The Crossroads Theatre in New Brunswick is currently presenting a high-spirited revival, directed by Lee Truesdale and featuring a 19-member cast that includes R&B star Tony Terry (whose hits in the ’80s and ’90s included “With You,” “Everlasting Love” and “Lovey Dovey”).
The first act of the play tells the story of the birth of Jesus, with a pair of silent actors playing His parents Joseph and Mary, and the other cast members singing, narrating parts of the story, or dancing. As is customary for productions of “Black Nativity,” Obediah Wright’s choreography incorporates elements of African dance.
The second half starts with a medley of Christmas standards by the male cast members (“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Silent Night,” “This Christmas”), and then becomes, basically, a gospel service, with some solemn sermonizing and one dramatic segment intended to evoke the turmoil of modern times (with religious faith presented as a healing and uplifting force).
Narrator Kenton Rogers provided the evening’s most stirring musical moment when he sang “You Raise Me Up,” though Terry, credited as the show’s “Featured Artist” in the program, was also very good throughout the evening, on “I Love the Lord” and other numbers.
The set design, by Patrice Davidson, was colorful but simple, giving the production a rough-hewn, homemade feel.
There were some sound problems the night I attended. Vocals on the opening rap number, “State of the Union,” were impossible to understand, since the music drowned them out. And one actor’s microphone headset was not functioning correctly throughout the show.
As one of the first plays by an African-American to be presented on Broadway, “Black Nativity” is historically important. But as critic Howard Taubman noted in his 1961 New York Times review, this “song-play” has “a lot of song but hardly any play.”
Still, at Crossroads, its moments of transporting ecstasy gives it something that other holiday entertainment offerings throughout the state simply don’t have.
“Black Nativity” will be at the Crossroads Theatre in New Brunswick through Dec. 18; visit crossroadstheatrecompany.org.