Review: Black Nativity at Celebration Arts

Showtimes: Thu 8pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 8pm; Through 12/22; $10-$20; Celebration Arts, 2727 B Street; (916) 455-2787,
Rated 4.0

The African-American poet and author Langston Hughes wrote Black Nativity in 1961 to retell the story of the birth of Christ from a black perspective—without mention of the fact that people from Bethlehem would have been closer to black than the white-skinned folks normally presented in nativity scenes.

Hughes didn’t write too much of this “choreopoem” Christmas story. It’s dialogue and narrative with gospel and spiritual music, assembled from Bible descriptions, linking material and songs Hughes chose but didn’t generate.

The narrative is delivered by various members of the 14-person choir who step out to deliver the narrative. Some of this dialogue could use a little amplification, but the singing—ah, the singing can’t be beat.

Director James Wheatley assembled the choir from a variety of places. The cast includes a ninth-grade student at Natomas Charter School (Nolin Moss, who also portrays a silent Joseph in act one) and the lead pastor at Living Grace Fellowship Church (Judah Dwight, an imposing, joyful presence), as well as many familiar Celebration Arts actors and singers.

The second act is a strong collection of hand-clapping, voice-raising gospel tunes that illustrate the continuing effect that ancient birth has on humanity. It’s a concert and church service all in one, and it is stirring.