In ‘Black Nativity’ at Howard University, new and upcoming talent shines

By Whit Davis

This article was originally published in DC Theater Arts, here.

At the outset of the production of Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity at Howard University, I was immediately transported back home to the South Side of Chicago to the churches I attended in my youth. I suspect that Hughes’ goal was for this play to be experiential, a sort of journey home to the self, and the director Eric Ruffin is keenly aware of Hughes’ purpose with each scene intimately woven with Black gospel and hymns and choreography.

Black Nativity is the biblical story of how Jesus came into this world. A blessing bestowed upon Mary (Nia Potter) and Joseph (Yisrael Robinson) through God or All for humanity. Regardless of your faith, religion, or beliefs, this is a Holiday story to remind us of love and community and to explore the unique expressions of Blackness.

Howard University’s Theatre Department has a robust legacy launching the careers of such notable actors as Lynn Whitfield and Chadwick Boseman. So it’s no surprise that there are new and upcoming talents in this play who will undoubtedly leave their mark on theater, film, and television. The ensemble members of the cast gave performances worthy of gossip over Sunday dinner. Wynter Cook (senior BFA Musical Theatre major), Kendrick Jackson (sophomore Jazz Studies major, Voice concentration), and Jantanies Thomas (senior BFA Musical Theatre major) possess remarkable stage presence and have the vocals to match. Jackson is a triple threat: acting, singing, and dancing with such poise that one can tell he’s born to do this.

Black Nativity’s creative team shines through with each scene. The musical performances remind me of the best of Bobby Jones Gospel and the Stellar Awards, thanks to musical director Greg Watkins, music arranger/consultant e’Marcus Harper-Short, sound designer Michael Willis, and the band. The music flows in a call-and-response-like rhythm, drawing in the audience to clap their hands, stomp their feet, and do their dance. The choreography of Princess Mhoon (choreographer) and Daniel L. Moore (assistant choreographer) unleashes a magnetism of movement felt by the audience. The icing on the cake is the costumes transitioning from Act One biblical garments to what reads as ’90s clothes, similar to the album cover of Kirk Franklin and the Family in Act Two, all thanks to costume advisor Frankie Bethea and the costume crew.

There are a few shortcomings related to lighting, sound issues, and a slight shakiness in performances from the young actors finding their way. Yet none of these occurrences dim a light on the very entertaining and worthwhile production. Howard University continues to live up to its reputation for offering the world its best through Black Nativity!

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