Returning to thrill New York audiences for the ninth year, Nativity: A Life Story brings a bevy of extraordinary performers to upper Broadway for what has become a holiday classic. The magnificent United Palace Theater, at 175th Street and Broadway, will host the musical for a three-week run: Thursday, December 4 at 8:00p.m., Friday, December 5 at 8:00p.m., Saturday, December 6 at 3:00p.m. and 8:00p.m., Friday, December 12 at 8:00p.m., Saturday, December 13 at 3:00p.m. and 8:00p.m., Friday, December 19 at 8:00p.m., and Saturday, December 20 at 3:00p.m. and 8:00p.m.
Inspired by Black Nativity, the Langston Hughes musical about the birth of Jesus, stage and screen veterans James Stovall (Sweet Charity, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) and Hattie Winston (CBS’s Becker) wrote Nativity: A Life Story to tell the story of the Christ’s birth through Mary’s eyes.
With text, song and dance, Stovall and Winston’s production follows Mary from her childhood in Galilee to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. A gifted array of entertainers brings the story to life, including vocal powerhouse Stephanie Mills, who provides the voice of Mary through song; gospel legend BeBe Winans as Joseph; R&B crooner Freddie Jackson in the role of a prophet; star of Harlem Song and Smokey Joe’s Caf‚, B.J. Crosby and the amazing Alyson Williams.
Nativity’s immense 125-member multiracial cast encompasses stage and screen veterans, a live sextet and three full choruses – The Broadway Inspirational Voices, The Christ United Church Youth-In-Action Chorus and The Ebony Ecumenical Ensemble. Stovall – who’s also helming the upcoming Bishop T.D. Jakes-produced musical Cover Girls — directs Nativity. Long-time composer, producer and Broadway stalwart Harold Wheeler heads up the team that puts together the show’s orchestrations and vocal arrangements.
For eight years, Nativity has lifted holiday audiences with “rollicking” gospel music performances. But this unique interpretation of Christ’s birth doesn’t stop with gospel inflections. “When we were researching the art of Black Madonnas we came across a theory that proposed Mary was descended from Ethiopian Jews,” says Stovall, who directed the recent “Rites of Ancestral Return” events commemorating the reinternment of the African ancestors at the African Burial Ground Memorial Site. “Working with the African aspect of the story really opened up the production. We were able to incorporate Ethiopian, Nigerian and Ghanaian music as well as gospel and spirituals. We even had a Nigerian songwriter, Olatunji, contribute ‘Betelehemu,’ which is sung in Yoruba.”
The producers are also excited about a tradition begun last year that captures the true spirit of the musical. “Our company, WWIN-ALL Publishing is working with an HIV/AIDS village in South Africa, The Sparrow’s Nest,” says Winston proudly. “Last year we sponsored an adoption for one of the children there, Godwin, a seven-year-old with tuberculosis who’d been abandoned. Godwin passed away several days ago, and we will commit to adopting a child every year in honor of his life.
The Billie Holiday Theatre is a gem in the Brooklyn community. Executive director/producer Marjorie Moon has provided audiences with plays that are interesting, funny, and thought-provoking for over two decades. That tradition is continuing with its latest offering, “Freeda Peoples.”
This entertaining play exposes what is really happening behind closed doors in a Black church in Harlem. Problems abound everywhere-from the pastor, to his deacons, to his church counselors. The people who are supposed to be the examples and lead the flock are exposed as not being perfect, but being human beings.
In this play the characters know the Bible and quote it often, but it is not done for spiritual enlightenment. They use the bible to make points in arguments.
The writer and director, Joyce Sylvester, gives audiences a show they can relate to and often laugh at. The characters reveal very personal and sometimes painful details about their lives. The information is helpful in assisting the audiences in understanding their behavior.
Rev. Scott (played by Jerome Preston Bates), Mrs. Reba Scott (played by Peggy Alston), Sister Ann (played by Marilyn Coleman); Deacon Beasley, her husband (played by C.R. Jarmon) , Deacon Lewis (played by Kim Sullivan), Elder Jones (played by William Williams) and Freeda Peoples (played by Jammie Patton) are characters that quickly capture the audience’s attention.
The cast delivers memorable performances. Bates is inspiring as Rev. Scott, who loves to quote Malcolm X and charge up the flock with his sermons. He also gives the character a very human side, as he portrays a husband who takes his wife for granted. When confronted, he is upset that she did not tell him how she was feeling all along. Alston is perfect as she captures and conveys the frustrations of a woman who wants to feel love and passion from her husband. Coleman is on-point as she talks the talk of a church sister ready to criticize instead of advise. Jarmon gives a touching performance as Beasley, a loving husband who is hurt, when after 45 years of marriage his wife questions his faithfulness. Williams is quick, funny and cold as Elder Jones, succeeding in disguising his character’s pain. Sullivan’s character does a 180- degree turn that I won’t talk about. He is brilliant as the Deacon who is loyal to the pastor. Patton delivers a wonderful performance as Peoples. She dresses one way, but shows that one should not judge people by their outer covering.
An engaging set by Patrice Andrew Davidson captures the audience’s attention. Costumes by Helen L. Simmons work well to depict these well-dressed,”religious” leaders. AVAN provides the lighting design and stage management.
“Freeda Peoples” will play through December 28. Go to see, laugh and free your mind from judging others.