Amen to That

The violence that engulfed America shortly after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy is well-documented. What isn't as well known is that many churches responded to the unrest by pulling together in a unique and effective way. In order to heal the wounds of their divided communities, black ministers exchanged pulpits with white pastors on several Sunday mornings throughout the summer of 1968. Sometimes their respective choirs joined in.

The religious leaders probably weren't aware of it at the time (neither, in all likelihood, were their congregations), but their decision to address the immediate worries of everyday people echoed a ceremony established long before the advent of Christianity: Five hundred years before the birth of Christ, the Greeks produced topical plays imbued with religious rites. Drawing thousands of people, the world's first formal theater festivals were true celebrations of community.

In the spirit of that tradition, Eulipions is currently presenting its eighth annual production of Langston Hughes's Black Nativity, a musical play that combines the observance of Christmas with a contemporary look at the physical, economic and spiritual forms of slavery still experienced by African-Americans. Director Jo Bunton Keel uses gospel music, spirituals, dance, drama and narration to examine the immediate concerns of her community through stories drawn from the past. She also manages to pull off a subtle "pulpit exchange" in the process: The production is currently playing in Eulipions' new home, a horseshoe-shaped, 500-seat theater that was once the meeting place for Denver's Shriners. Spectators surround the red-carpeted, sunken stage floor on three sides, peering down on the actors from seats that are, in some cases, several feet above the performers' heads.

The large cast boasts people from virtually every age group whose performing abilities are equally diverse. They range from seasoned performers who radiate polished professionalism to theatrical newcomers whose tone and execution are clearly amateur. Nevertheless, what some of these actors lack in ability, they make up for in heart; their efforts captivate us in ways that are often superior to the overhyped and overpriced efforts proffered by many local theater companies. What's more, if you're in search of holiday entertainment that also contains serious, relevant social commentary, then Black Nativity is the show to see.

Despite a lethargic first thirty minutes, the actors' efforts engage our interest for the greater part of the two-and-one-quarter-hour evening. Midway through the first act, Linda Spruell and Reggie Jones get the joint jumping with "This Was the Greatest Gift." Then the opening notes of "O Holy Night" play softly in the background, and two performers enter from the audience to deliver a quiet rendition of the famous carol that sets the stage for one of the evening's most powerful scenes.

The superb Claudette Sweet performs the spiritual "Sweet Little Jesus Boy," summoning all of her considerable vocal skills to deliver an eloquent prayer that elicits the show's theme of humanity's inhumanity: "The world treat you mean, Lord/Treat me mean, too," she sings. By the time she finishes with "Sweet Jesus forgive us/We didn't know who you were," there isn't a dry eye in the house.

Act Two transports us to the realm of gospel as the actors perform songs that rise from the pain their characters experience as victims of racism and slavery. The actors sing "There's a Meeting Here Tonight," "Give Me That Old Time Religion" and "Amen," and the atmosphere in the large hall resembles that of an old-fashioned revival meeting. Near the end of the show, some of the older actors step forward to tell us about their personal experiences with prejudice. Surprisingly, they don't seize the opportunity to vent their residual rancor. Instead, they gently and resolutely state that it's time for a healing to take place and that we must all bear responsibility for society's ills. They reach out to shake the hands of those patrons seated in the theater's first row, reinforcing the sense of community that underscores many of the show's best moments.

If there is a problem here, it's Keel's inexplicable decision to direct some portions of the performance as if they were taking place in a traditional proscenium theater, confining some of the action to one end of the building--which happens to be the section that's farthest away from most of the audience. As a result, the characters sometimes resemble two-dimensional inhabitants of a distant landscape rather than flesh-and-blood people wrestling with contemporary problems. Keel could have helped break up the flat, expansive space by adding a few well-placed banners and platforms, which would have contributed some much-needed visual variety.

Despite the show's technical shortcomings, though, the actors win our hearts in the end. As they sing a jazzed-up version of the "Hallelujah Chorus," we want to clap our hands and sing along with them. At the same time, we realize that the show isn't the answer to all of the problems that pervade our own communities. But it's certainly a step in the right direction. As recent events indicate, racism is no stranger to Denver. Then again, neither are celebrations of what makes our community great--something this show makes perfectly clear.

Black Nativity, through December 28 at the Eulipions Cultural Center, 1770 Sherman Street, 863-0026.

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Jim Lillie