'Tis the season, yet very few professional theater companies take up the religious significance of Christmas. A good thing, too, since the majority would muck it up with insincere pretensions. But the fact that most theater companies can't do Christmas makes the fact that Eulipions can that much more exceptional. Black Nativity is a gloria in excelsis Deo kind of thrill--very professional, very beautiful and very moving, partly because the performers are so phenomenally talented and partly because they invest so much meaning in what they're singing.

This gospel version of the birth of Jesus, written by the great poet and playwright Langston Hughes, moves from the biblical account of the nativity to the contemporary Christmas message as Hughes sees it--the message of love, understanding and forgiveness. Just as northern Europeans pictured Jesus with golden tresses and blue eyes, Hughes makes him the son of an African-American Mary. Traditional gospel hymns and a few old favorite carols are interspersed throughout, each illustrating or advancing the story.

As the show opens, Debbie Lewis-Johnson, VanNessa Howard and Jimmy Walker perform an exquisite dance incorporating African movement and rhythms with modern choreography. As we move into the narrative, Howard takes on the role of Mary and Walker takes the role of Joseph. The two then begin the history of the pregnant girl and her husband on the road to Bethlehem. On-stage narrators comment on the action and recount the story.

One of the evening's great moments arrives with Ta-Gana DeCluette singing "Born in a Manger." DeCluette raises the sweet hymn to a sophisticated work of art--and she returns in the second act with an even more complex rendition of "Love Is Calling." Her performance is the heart of the show.

But each member of this body is essential. Teenagers William Archibald and Brandon Younger perform a tough, insightful rendering of "Little Drummer Boy" that replaces the song's sentimentality with power. And Fahnlohnee Harris and Jason Thompson sing a piercingly lovely "O Holy Night."

Though he draws heavily on the King James version of the Bible, Hughes also departs from it to make his own points. The playwright leaps gracefully from the romance of the Song of Solomon to the stern warning of Ecclesiastes, driving home the need for compassion with the comforting words of Proverbs. Hughes points out that Africa is the continent that gave the world Judaism, Christianity and Islam and, without having to hammer it into the audience, makes the connection between the ideal of brotherhood and the failure of society to live up to that ideal.

In the second act, Hughes skips forward nineteen centuries to take on comtemporary problems--the child with a gun, the fractious war between the sexes, materialism--and narrator Walker's strong presence links the disparate elements beautifully. Director Linda O. Robinson has cast her show well--the singing styles range from operatic bell tones to fire-in-the-belly gospel, and she blends them masterfully. The joy and energy they project together are as strong and stirring as church bells.