Arts » Performing Arts

Black Theater Cash Cow?

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In numerous cities across America, from San Fran to DC, Langston Hughes's Black Nativity has become an entrenched landmark in the Yuletide entertainment landscape. Up in St. Paul, Penumbra Theatre counts on the gospel song play for 50 percent of its annual revenues -- and must rent out a spacious auditorium to accommodate the 25,000 devotees who flock to see the production annually. Just three days after the 40th anniversary of Black Nativity's Broadway opening, the Afro-American Children's Theatre premiered its own version last Friday at the Great Aunt Stella Center. I could see why the musical has remained immune to aging.

Originally commissioned as a vehicle for gospel great Marion Williams and her Stars of Faith vocal ensemble, Hughes's book is only lightly brushed with substance. With only an idiomatic narrative tethering the music to the drama, musical directors and featured singers have retained the freedom to select their own sacred repertoire.

Among the newer disposable parts engrafted on the AACT edition of Black Nativity, perhaps the most bizarre was the Five Stairsteps' 1970 hit, "Ooh Child." More in the Christmas groove were the doo-wop "Silent Night" with rap interlude and the totally gospelized "Come All Ye Faithful." Most extraordinary of all was the funky "Song of Joy" -- ripped and rapped from the Ninth Symphony -- a reclamation that would have reduced the dour Ludwig van Beethoven to hysterical laughter.

Guest soloist Deidre Johnson took no prisoners during her plentiful solos, gradually warming up to the most searing version of "O Holy Night" I've ever heard. While Johnson and music director Eric Reed kept things hopping and wailing with their inspired selections and stylings, what totally surpassed expectations were the choral and dance ensembles. I'd say the average age of both groups was in the early teens.

Choreographer Roy Lewis's preparation of the 15-member dance troupe was nearly on the same lofty plane as Reed's work with the 18-member chorus. Both the choreography and choral arrangements deftly balanced the solo talents of individual performers with the power and discipline of the full ensembles.

What sensational youth soloists! Although the playbill didn't specify who sang what -- or provide the names of Reed's superb instrumental trio -- all of them were possessed with the singing (or rapping) gift. Parents, friends, and relatives scattered throughout cozy Aunt Stella's could rightfully swell with pride at the exploits of Phillip Caldwell, Sara Johnson, Courtney Stewart, Jordan Cole, LaTina Woodard, Shakeala Baker, and Reginald Gibson.

If you think seven out of 18 is an unusually high proportion of capable soloists in a choral ensemble, you should have seen the dancers. Every one of them held the spotlight -- and held it repeatedly. None ever faltered. Togetherness of the ensemble was superb. I can only recall once seeing any one dancer in the group grossly out of sync with the rest. So while I expected a certain level of performance from a children's company -- and was prepared to delight in the flubs and foibles of inexperience -- the reality I heard in the music-making and beheld in the electrifying movement was several notches above the ordinary. My expectations were turned upside down.

Still, I'm hoping the AACT production isn't enshrined as a local institution until some problems are solved. One of these is the Great Aunt Stella Center. Last Saturday's matinee performance proved once again what a wonderful venue it is for music. But what passes there for a stage is totally inadequate and unmanageable for a large-scale musical. Without the luxury of wing space, the chorus made its entrances from the side doors, walked up the front of the stage, and formed three rows at the rear of the cramped space. Two large gift-wrapped flats further partitioned the space to give the dancers a mini-backstage so they could exit and execute costume changes.

Under such trying circumstances, stage director Dawn Womack did little more than direct traffic. Parents might not expect more, but I do. For an outfit with "Theatre" in its name, the acting in the AACT offering was execrable. Mostly, it looked like the acting roles were handed to the kids who couldn't cut it singing or dancing.

Little direction was provided afterwards -- either on what to do onstage or what the script meant. The narrator read her narration and betrayed scant understanding of what she read. Actors often took spots onstage and tepidly delivered their lines. Without motivation -- and without budging an inch. In multiple roles, Carolina Fisher was the only cast member whose expression and energy were consistently at acceptable levels. Among the others, preschooler Jordan Hall as a cutesy angel outdid her elders in projecting her voice intelligibly to the balcony.

There's no scarcity of black theater talent in Charlotte. Creative Loafing has recognized African Americans for top awards in acting, directing, and even for Charlotte's Theaterperson of the Year. We're aware of stellar theater educators, past and present, at Johnson C. Smith University, and the current director of education at Theatre Charlotte is also of Afro descent. An SOS needs to go out to these and other people so that their help can be enlisted in shoring up the drama component of AACT's program so that it equals the amazing music and dance they're producing. Accomplish that, and even Spirit Square might be too small a venue to accommodate the crowds flocking to Black Nativity. *

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