For more than five decades, “Black Nativity” has sought to prove that reverence and joy are inextricably linked; that they are, in effect, one and the same.
At least, that convergence takes place when the story is in the hands — or, rather, the voices and faces — of the stellar performers in “Black Nativity.”
Invariably a highlight of the holidays, “Black Nativity” is now filling the Emerson Paramount Center with beautiful sounds and generally proving to be as glorious as ever in its 52nd year. You’re not likely to experience a more stirring or meaningful cultural event this season than the production of Langston Hughes’s “gospel song-play” by the National Center of Afro-American Artists.
Directed once again by Voncille Ross, “Black Nativity” retells the story of the birth of Jesus Christ via gospel songs. Ross and her cast conjure an embracing mood of celebration and invitation, with an overriding message that all are welcome. (Two ASL interpreters are part of the production, standing downstage left.)
Featuring a large cast of white-robed singers, including children, who bear electric candles, “Black Nativity” begins with a procession from the back of the theater down to the stage, and ends with a procession back up the aisles. Many of them barefoot, some in sandals, the cast sets the table with a rousing rendition of “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”
And then “Black Nativity” proceeds to tell it. The nativity story is narrated by the Honorable Milton L. Wright, his voice and demeanor a blend of gravitas and compassion. The songs flow smoothly into one another, alternately serving as mood-setter, commentary, description, or context.
Somber at first (”My Way Is Cloudy,” “No Room,” “Mary’s on the Road,” “Joseph’s on the Road”), the atmosphere turns to jubilation after the main event, with the performers soaring through songs like “A Mighty Day,” “Joy to the World,” “Christ Is Born,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” (Early in the performance, young Ayden Bercy does a marvelous job with a shortened version of “Joy to the World.”)
As we watch Joseph (Joe Gonzalez) and a very pregnant Mary (Kaleisha “Kiki” Chance) wandering in search of shelter, their desperation growing as they are cold-bloodedly turned away from an inn, we in the audience inevitably think — we are meant to think — about the social outcasts in our own time. Narrator Wright, shaking his head, says “No room at the hotel” over and over.
Mary’s labor is expressed in a whirling dance by Chance, and it is transfixing. While musicians onstage play African drums with a thundering intensity that builds and builds, Chance spins and hurls her body, depicting childbirth as an act of pure, unstoppable will: defiant, ecstatic, and sacred at the same time.
The role of Baby Jesus is filled by an adorable infant named Elliot “Ellie” Robinson, who projected a blend of curiosity (all those singers onstage!) and utter serenity while cradled in Chance’s arms at Saturday’s matinee performance, with Gonzalez laying a gentle hand on the baby’s head. Several of the child performers gathered around them, asking in song “Mary, Mary, What You Gonna’ Name Your Baby?”
The sight and sound of the wonderful child performers is a reminder that the creative team behind “Black Nativity” know they are carrying on an important legacy.
Director Ross, who has been involved with the production for 46 years, pays tribute in a program note to the late and legendary Elma Lewis, founder of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, and others who laid the foundation for “Black Nativity.”
Ross writes that the show “teaches the ‘littlest ones’ to believe in themselves and it gives adults the opportunity to mentor children while cultivating their own artistry.”
All in all, Lewis would be pleased to see how sturdy that foundation has proven to be.
By Langston Hughes. Directed by Voncille Ross. Music director, Stephen Hunter. Musical arrangements, John Andrew Ross. Choreography, George Howard. Ballet mistress, Desiree Springer. Choral director for Children of Black Persuasion, Marilyn Andry. Choral director for Voices of Black Persuasion, Milton L. Wright. Presented by the National Center of Afro-American Artists. At Robert J. Orchard Stage, Emerson Paramount Center. Through Dec. 18. Tickets $35-$90. 617-824-8400, www.blacknativity.org