Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Cleveland & Akron

Black Nativity
Karamu Theatre
Review by Mark Horning

Also see David's review of A Christmas Carol and Mark's review of Avenue Q


Artwork Courtesy of Karamu House
Langston Hughes' The Black Nativity is the classic retelling of the story of the birth of Jesus Christ. Over the course of the evening, traditional Christmas carols are sung in gospel style along with a few songs created for the show. Hughes wrote the original book, and the show first appeared Off-Broadway in 1961 and was groundbreaking in its concept. It had a successful tour of Europe and has been a holiday mainstay for many theaters around the country, including Karamu Theatre in Cleveland.

The show is divided into two distinct acts. The first act deals with the story of the birth of Jesus Christ, in which Joseph and a very pregnant Mary are forced to stay in a stable because the town of Bethlehem is filled with people there for a census to be taken. The ensemble (Michael Hives, Bonita Jenkins, Christina Johnson, Delisa Medlea, Renata Louise Napier, Raven Plats, Jordon Shores, Bryan Tutwiley, Kodee Williams, and Latonia Wilson) are featured in various solos such as "Joy to the World," "No Room," "Unto Us," "Go Tell It on the Mountain," and "O Come, All Ye Faithful," among others.

The second act is like a revivalist church meeting with acts such as The Five Blind Boys, The Clara Ward Singers, Reverend James Cleveland, and Mahalia Jackson represented by members of the cast. Songs include "The First Noel," "Swing Low," "Traveling Shoes," and "Change Me, Oh God" among others.

From the first song on, the audience is immersed in the spirit of the show. It is jazzy, soulful, and quick moving. Along with the singing, three dancers (Kailyn Mack, Nehemiah and Rashawn Kadeem) perform a series of amazing interpretive dances that are guaranteed to wow you. Even through the slow numbers there is an undercurrent of sharp tension that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. When the cast cuts loose with songs such as "The Blood Still Works," it virtually raises the roof of the theater. Add to this stirring solos such as the heartfelt "Change Me, Oh God" and you have an evening of immense pleasure and entertainment.

In the newly renovated (and spectacular) Jelliffe Theatre, the set, a multi-tiered masterpiece created by Richard H. Morris, Jr., is wonderfully lit by Colleen Albrecht. Sound design is by Ron Calhoun, with Taylor Calhoun as sound technician, and the show is directed and choreographed by Reggie Kelly.

With all of the staid traditional offerings of holiday theatre in Cleveland, it is nice to spend an evening witnessing. I found myself caught up with the emotion of the show as I clapped, hooted, and hollered along with the rest of the audience, and there was a well-deserved screaming standing ovation at the end. I hope this Cleveland tradition continues for years to come.

Black Nativity, through December 30, 2018, at Karamu House, 2355 East 89th Street, Cleveland OH. Parking is free in a well-lit and secure lot. Tickets are going fast but may be purchased online at karamuhouse.org or by phone by calling 216-795-7077.


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