Arts Listings

Hansberry Theater Stages ‘Black Nativity’ in SF

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Wednesday December 17, 2008 - 07:10:00 PM

From the staged, stylized Gospel story of the door-to-door search for shelter and the adoration of the wise men in a stable in Bethlehem to the full-out testifying, choral singing and social pageantry of the African-American church, Lorraine Hansberry theater company’s Black Nativity: A Gospel Celebration of Christmas, now in its 10th year (and Hansberry’s 28th), is playing through Dec. 28 at San Francisco’s PG&E Auditorium. 

With a new script and staging, the show bursts forth with the exuberance of its assembled voices, dancers, musicians and narrator. Its dynamic storytelling, often full of humor, constantly shifts focus, just as the music does for each voice, always bringing it back together in community to tell of the love of birth and creation in exciting rhythms and harmonies. 

Hansberry’s artistic director, Stanley Wil-liams, first gives us the sacred story as told, with the earthy embellishments theater has always brought to the hallowed—then brings on the congregation that enacts and celebrates it in their own Come Sunday glory, a direct address to our emotions, thoughts and all our senses.  

The singing, both choral and solo, is almost continuous, a mix of Gospel songs with a few “gospelized” Christmas carols. Each soloist is distinguished not only by differences in range and timbre from the others, but in mood, manner of delivery, movement and facial expression. 

In the first part on opening night, the story of the nativity itself, the shepherds—as was true in the medieval miracle plays—clown around. The older herdsmen alternate with the younger as cut-buddies, disapproving of the kids’ contemporary singing and rap, ducking in with Motown and Stax numbers. The audience rocked with laughter. 

This lightening of the stylized biblical material, overseen by Allison L. Payne’s warm narration (in the church-going part, she preaches lustily), was just a hint of the opening up of the second part.  

Coming back from intermission to our seats, the audience watched the congregation shown to theirs onstage, white-gloved ushers (Demure Adrianna Bre Harris and the lithe Michael Montgomery, who danced Mary and Joseph in the first half, now come into their own, choreographed by Pjay Phillips), worshippers in full regalia—and attitude, bringing the humor out of the fields of Bethlehem, and a little closer to home. There are some deft touches of satire, even in the midst of stirring anthems.  

Arvis Strickling-Jones, raised in the Bay Area and a world traveler as performer and choir director, who brought the San Quentin Inmates Choir to “Good Morning, America” on TV with her song “A Friend,” has returned to shine as music director and principal artist (Robin Hodge-Williams, another past music director of Black Nativity, will step in Dec. 20-21). 

Yvonne Cobb and Sherral Strickling-McCall assist in musical direction and sing with the choir, which—with the dancers joining in—comes close to 20 voices. Each deserves her own review. On this crowded—sometimes overwhelmed—stage, the musicians are invisible but never unheard, swinging away behind the scenes: Kenneth Little, conducting from the keyboards, James “Booyah” Richard on bass and drummer Troy Hill. 

The designers (Rose Plant, costumes; set, Robert Broadfoot; Matthew Royce, lights; Ian Hunter, sound) and the techs have transformed a handsome corporate auditorium into a theater (Hansberry having just lost their longtime downtown SF home) to stage a tabernacle. 

Easy to praise Black Nativity and its wonderful cast and crew; hard to get across the sheer exuberance—and fun—they convey their deep-down message for the holidays. It’s delightful just to sit and watch it unfold. But the audience never just sits—toes tap, hands are clapping or being shaken by the choir, moving from the stage, up and down the aisles. 


Through Dec. 28 at the PG&E Auditorium, 77 Beale St., San Francisco. $18–36. 

(415) 474-8800.