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On Saturday afternoon at the North Carolina Museum of Art's outdoor Joseph M. Bryan, Jr. Theater, The Justice Theater Project, an organization formed to "produce compelling theater experiences that create community dialogue and give voice to social concerns," presented the first of three immersive outdoor presentations of their annual production of Langston Hughes' Black Nativity. Written and directed by Dr. Asabi (Stephanie Howard), choreographed by Kristi Vincent Johnson and Toya Chinfloo, and led in musical direction by Rev. Ray Watkins, Black Nativity in Concert is an enthralling 45-minute gospel concert that presents the poignant, classic, and inspirational tale of the birth of Christ through engaging story, song, and dance. The concert combines the time-honored narrative with captivating West African and contemporary dance, a vibrant live band, dynamic costumes, and Christmas carols beautifully sung in gospel style by nine soloists to share the unforgettable story of the Nativity.
After an introduction by the NCMA Director of Performing Arts and Film Moses T. Alexander Greene, as the first theatre company to grace the outdoor amphitheater's stage, the group began their performance and immediately ensnared the audience's attention. The outdoor space exceeded capacity, for while registered attendees sat in lawn chairs, passersby stopped to enjoy the show on their walks through Museum Park. The cast exuded enthusiasm during the opening song, "The Presence of the Lord Is Here," eager to perform Black Nativity for the first time since 2019. Led by a male vocalist with strong stage presence and beautiful chemistry with the other singers, there was a feeling that something special was imminent. Perhaps it was the wind (though not likely), but as the music transitioned to "Praise Him (Lift Him Up)," the melody of the congas among the band and the vocalists brought about chills that did not fade for quite some time.
Progressing through the narrative, the birth of Christ was represented through dance. While Mary was hidden from view, her cries were the music to which a woman danced. Her movements, modern in technique, displayed the pain, fear, and suffering Mary endured during delivery; it seemed that the dancer was channeling such feelings into her remarkable movements. From this pain, the performance shifted to awe and celebration of the holy occurrence. Soft, instrumental approaches to "O Holy Night" and "Mary Did You Know," endearing and enchanting in nature, allowed the audience to revel in the wonder of the birth of Christ and join in celebration of his arrival. The culminating hymn of "Joy to the World" transitioned the tender considerations of Christ's birth into full rejoice. The choir united in a gospel rendition of the song and all nine of their voices blended seamlessly. The energy infused was unparalleled, invigorating, and contagious.
As the concert continued, the wind increased and began to interfere with the microphones of the performers. Despite the malfunctions beginning in "Go Tell It on the Mountain," the choir did not disappoint; the soloist continued her refrains, and even without substantial amplification, her bold and powerful voice was heard throughout the amphitheater and out onto the lawn. As other performers' microphones wavered in and out of operation, their energy did not dwindle and neither did that of the audience. Throughout the concert, the audience, young and old, reciprocated the performers' zealous energy and engaged in the concert by singing, dancing, clapping, and praising – everything short of hopping up on stage to join!
The songs themselves were enchanting, and on top of that Lydia Houston's costume design and Johnson and Chinfloo's choreography aided in the storytelling. The technical direction of Jeffrey Nugent, the lighting design by Cory Arnold, and the stage management of Brianna Johnson all ensured the success of the show. The dancers exhibited an enthusiasm and connection to the narrative that resonated with the audience. Paired with the traditionally African and contemporary movements of the dancers, the words sung by the choir came to life. And, dressed in dynamic fabric with exuberant colors and patterns, the dancers and singers alike were eye-catching. The vibrant costumes reflected the delight and passion of the performers as they rejoiced in the birth of Christ.
At the conclusion of the choir's final gospel hymns, the crowd rose for a much-earned standing ovation. The choir enraptured the audience in their joyful songs, and with the accompaniment on their right, the dancers surrounding them, and their bright costumes to incite enthusiasm, they successfully told the story of the Nativity and sincerely generated inspiration. The company united the audience members of all beliefs and backgrounds through the power of their joyful story, song, and dance. Just as described at the start of the production by Dr. Asabi, the performance was soul lifting and foot stomping. It was much enjoyed, and if you are searching for a family-friendly holiday event that is both educational, inspirational, and entertaining, Black Nativity in Concert is sure to please!
This year's performances of Black Nativity in Concert by The Justice Theater Project are funded in part by the United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County, the North Carolina Arts Council, City of Raleigh based on recommendations of the Raleigh Arts Commission, and sponsored by Carol Woods Retirement Community, Solidarity Capital, and Aqua Terra Therapies. Their support directly upholds this free holiday tradition for the residents of Wake County and the surrounding North Carolina regions.
Black Nativity in Concert has a final concert on December 12 at 4:00 PM. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.