Let the church chillax,” instructs Andre De Shields’ deeply funky pastor in Classical Theater of Harlem’s revival of “Black Nativity.” There are no Rockettes, no computer effects and no Santa Claus in this all-singing, all-dancing, besequined Christmas spectacle. But Langston Hughes’ ghetto-fabulous pageant more than makes up for its low-tech production values with boundless enthusiasm and enough dazzling sets of pipes to shame a church organ.
From the opening wa-pedaled strains of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Black Nativity” is unapologetically religious theater, or maybe just highly theatrical worship. The two forms have kept company for centuries, of course, but as the art world and the Christian church have become more uneasy with one another, openly religious productions show up less and less often. With equal chances of offending the faithful and creeping out the skeptical, it makes sense that the risk would seem greater than the reward.
It’s into this void that “Black Nativity” steps, with De Shields’ pastor as the emcee — a sort of cross between Jesse Jackson and Ed Sullivan, with a really great show for us set on the 42nd St. of yore. Yore in this case is 1973, a dirty time for Times Square during which the boulevard apparently threatened to overflow with singing pimps, crooning hookers and tuneful doomsayers. It’s a rich and unique setting for the nativity, though it’s probably short on shock value by comparison to Hughes’ original 1961 production with Alvin Ailey, when the show was called “Wasn’t It a Mighty Day?.”
Mary (Tracy Jack) and Joseph (Enrique Cruz DeJesus — go on, make a joke) go through the “no room at the inn/angelic annunciation/birth/wise men” rotation fairly quickly, but the show is less of a narrative and more of a venue for the actors to express a contagious ecstasy. Far from intimidating or off-putting, this religious fervor seems to run solely on goodwill, and even generates a little envy: everybody onstage seems to be having a ball.
The setting yields some amusingly eye-watering costumes, especially the getups designed by Kimberly Glennon for the Three Wise Men (Melvin Bell III, Rejinald Woods, and Alexander Elisa), who enter dressed in voluminous wigs, frilly white shirts, skyscraping platforms, and vest/bellbottom combos in colors that make you want to go lie down.
The costumes underscore the most surprising thing about this musical: the distinct impression that these party favors are all natural outgrowths of religion for this cast. As difficult as it is for anyone to imagine the world’s many televangelical toads breaking it down out of actual joy, there’s no denying that when this crew sings that they “can’t stop praisin’ the Lord,” they appear to really mean it.
“Black Nativity” uses its performers to the utmost of their abilities, and while it’s unabashedly sentimental (Kenya’s Shangilia Youth Choir is present solely to look cute), the show is not unaware of the time in which it’s being performed. There’s outrage at the war, a little hand-wringing over the state of the world and a surprisingly powerful moment in which De Shields reads dispatches from the Middle East in today’s New York Post while his performers sing “Silent Night.”
The show is preaching a specific doctrine, certainly, but its creators are also preaching on a more general theme: care for the world around them and for us. And for as long as they are exuding such boundless energy, those travails don’t seem quite as insurmountable.