'Black Nativity' at Theatre Horizon: A vibrant, musical holiday blast

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In "Black Nativity" at Theatre Horizon, Candace Benson (runner-up at BET's "Sunday Best" competition) amazes with her vocals and dance moves.

It has been a while since I've seen Black Nativity, perhaps not since the last time Ozzie Jones directed it for Freedom Theater. Theatre Horizon's version of this Afrocentric holiday tradition is a joyful, noisy alternative to all those grim Dickensians and cynical elves.

Written as a "gospel-song play" by the great Langston Hughes, it puts the Christ squarely back in Christmas, with a first act placing the manger in pre-diaspora Africa, and a second act in the present day. But there's so much latitude in its meager script and song choices that every production can be drastically different. Jones chooses a small post-Katrina New Orleans congregation for the show's contemporary second-act setting, and, within that context, offers an optimist's riff on the Charleston, S.C., church shooting, after which the real-life perpetrator said its congregants welcomed him so warmly he "almost didn't go through with it."

What Black Nativity lacks in dialogue it makes up for in joie de vivre, under the music direction of Will Brock. The first-act song "Joy" climaxes in an all-out dance-off to the beat of Anussumane Silla's djembe, with all 10 cast members taking turns showing off their skills. It's a blast to watch Jenn Rose's choreography, which pulls from African, African American, and modern traditions. These include nods to Alvin Ailey, who appeared in an early Off-Broadway version of the show, and a New Orleans second-line parade that snakes through the house, accompanied by Paul Geiss' delightfully braying trumpet.

Kingsley Ibeneche and Sanchel Brown make a sweet Joseph and Mary, but it's their dancing, Ibeneche's athleticism, and Brown's limber movement (I swear one of her high kicks hit 90 degrees) that make their pairing a thrill to watch. But even they have a tough time competing with Candace Benson, who slays that dance-off and sings like a diva (she was runner-up at BET's Sunday Best gospel-singer competition). Movable, free-form panels on Brian Dudkiewicz's set and Janus Stefanowicz's African costumes thrum with color and pattern (at least in the first act; second-act costumes are mostly black modern garb), adding to the vibrancy.

Again, outside the most elementary outline of Jesus' birth, there's not much narrative, and what there is Jones stretches into the ridiculous. There's a near-death and a birth in that little church, and nobody calls an ambulance? But at the start of this particularly dismal holiday season, a little intercontinental hope and jubilation go a long way toward lightening our collective burdens.

Wendy_Rosenfield@yahoo.com

WendyRosenfield http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/phillystage/


THEATER REVIEW

Black Nativity

Through Dec. 13 at Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb St., Norristown.

Tickets: $22-$49.

Information: 610-283-2230 or www.TheatreHorizon.org.

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