“Take me to church…” well, it is the Christmas season. This play by the father of the Harlem Renaissance movement himself, Langston Hughes, is a retelling of the nativity story by an entirely African-American cast. It takes many classic hymns and songs and spins them in a slightly new way- along with African drumming, toe-tapping live band, and gorgeously bright costumes that make a strong nod to African heritage.
As we arrived at Motorhouse for the production, there were no programs though. I was told they were being printed, and true to their word, when the usher had a handful she passed them out diligently to all the audience members. The problem is there is such a large cast! And they are all so talented! I am only going to be able to recognize some of them here for two reasons, space, and that the program doesn’t have a cast list 😦 I asked for some clarification from the usher on the way out, and did some google searching, and think I am crediting the right people, but if not, somebody’s gotta tell me.
The band. Let’s talk about that swinging, rhythm-driven, jazz-infused ensemble. I know the stage is large, they are trying to maximize seating, etc. but it is kind of a shame to hide them behind the flat. The program and advertising says “original music by Cedric D. Lyles” who is also credited with pianist and conductor. The rest is rounded out by Charles Johnson, Jordan Chase, Phillip Tillman, and Kevin Ellis. I honestly thought it was a soundtrack on some sick speakers, before I realized they were playing. They did not miss a beat. They were on fire all night and I suspect direly needed a five minute break by the time this is over, there were very few moments on stage without musical accompaniment.
The nativity story is framed by a modern story of a woman and her son. Her son is begging for change in the beginning and, in typical Baltimore style, is ignored by most. His mother doesn’t seem to pleased with his philanthropic efforts, and in Act 2 even comes in to church, during the service, to retrieve him. He spends most of Act 1 following the vision of Jesus’s birth, and how this holiday tradition took root. Marcus Maddox Jr. plays the young man with grace and charm. He does not speak in most of Act 1, except for the prologue where he asks kindly for change. So when he does actually sing in Act 2, I don’t think there was a dry eye in the audience.
And what is more, there are two extremely gifted dancers in the mix, Myrhanda R. McDaniels plays Mary, and Candace Foreman as the angel. Both are distinct presences on stage despite their small vocal parts. Both dance in amazing arcs and sweeps of a fusion of modern and African dance- as an angel entranced, as a mother giving birth, and as interpretations of several songs.
The voices! Where do they find all these amazing singers? There were so many, and many played multiple roles, stepped forward, sang their piece, and stepped back into the ensemble space. A few standouts worth mentioning were Montel Butler, the only member of the night to illicit whistles and cheers of “yeah Monty” while breaking down a hymn on stage. Pam Ward has a smooth voice and owns the spotlight when she steps into it. Antonio Chase Jr. has an unbelievable range as he mellows in his tenor home and hits high notes with ease. I was impressed by everyone. Every time a great singer came forward, I swear the next one topped it. It was so hard to keep track.
The costumes are credited to Destiny Harris, Reggie Ray, and Brandee Mathies. The outfits were beautiful. No two were alike, but the colors unified families and people cohesively. There was a nod to traditional African fabrics and design but also a light toward modern aesthetic. It was something to see, and with all the rich greens and bright reds, it also spoke proudly of the holiday the play centers around.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? ArtsCentric is becoming a prominent voice in the Baltimore Theater Community. Every show we have covered has been top-notch. If you have not gone to see a show here yet- what are you waiting for? Take the family to this- revel in the traditional nativity story, the language and beauty of Langston Hughes, the classic hymns and songs, and the extremely ebullient cast at their finest. The music is contagious, the story timeless, and costumes that are regal with splendor. This is the Christmas show to see this season in Baltimore- get tickets now- several performances are already sold out! (I)
Running at Motor House through December 29th. Running time Two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission.