JESUS, JOSEPH AND MERRY

Most of the holiday shows now playing in Denver are secular pieces that capitalize on the season's frenetic nostalgia but have no commitment to its meaning. But there is one authentic Christmas piece in town: Black Nativity at Eulipions.

The play by poet Langston Hughes has a doubly emotional edge--a fierce community consciousness as well as a profoundly religious purpose. It has become a Christmas tradition at Eulipions, and every year it brings new surprises. Last year's production was terrific, graced by fine talents and rich emotions. But this year's has a more polished look, a more professional aura and an even livelier spiritual content.

The first act tells the story of the birth of Jesus in dance, song and narrative--quotes from the Bible liberally sprinkled through a cosmic history of African and African-American religious thought. Africa was the birthplace of three of the world's great religions, we are reminded, and "the celebration of the beginning that has no ending" is a phenomenon native to every race. John Williams and Morgan Williams play Joseph and Mary, and they're well-suited to what are essentially dance roles that require robust interpretive technique. Their story-dances are strong, crisp, graceful and passionate.

Traditional Christmas carols and African-American hymns also receive fresh interpretations by some of this town's most accomplished singers. Jason Thompson's "The Greatest Gift" is sonorous and magical. Juanita Pope and Larry Wren sing the classiest "O Holy Night" ever--jazzy, deeply felt and goose-pimple-producing. It's hard to say which song is most moving in the first act--Pope's traditional "Sweet Little Jesus" or the full-blown, whole-cast "Oh Come All Ye Faithful" led by Kovetta Winrow (small frame, big voice).

Hugo Sayles's powerful presence as the narrator unites the disparate elements of the piece--his shaman-artist-preacher is a natural force that glues the show together. In the first act he reminds us of an ancient seer; in the second act, his role is likewise prophetic, but more teacherly than ritualistic. The second act concerns contemporary times, specifically the black community in the troubled waters of the late twentieth century. It addresses issues of child abuse, drugs, violence, the role of black women, treatment of the elderly and, new this year, an inspiring tribute to African-American manhood and the Million Man March.

The music here includes modern gospel as well as traditional tunes, and the heartfelt affection the cast members obviously have for the material they sing contributes to the show's sacramental quality. Most notable in this fine production, as in last year's, is young Ta-Gana DeCluette. It's a privilege to watch her talent develop from one year to the next; her exquisite voice, with its range and its resonant purity, is a truly luscious force.

But it is clear also that DeCluette is learning from the show's many mentors. Director Dwayne Carrington keeps the action lively but always smooth and elegant, neatly combining a handful of amateur performers with the more studied professionals in his cast. Music director Daryl J. Walker orchestrates the whole-cast numbers with precision and unerring taste, integrating the show-stoppers with the solos for maximum emotional impact. The result is almost unique today: theater as a fascinating celebration of the sacred.

 
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