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“Soul Nativity” Showcases Stars, Genius and Harlem School of the Arts

By Bernice Elizabeth Green

Must-See Theatrical, Gospel & R&B Extravaganza directed by Alfred Preisser and Tracy Jack to Close this Sunday
YellowGirlPurpleChorusWebThe Harlem School of the Arts, poised to celebrate its 50th year, has launched stars who have returned to the school to launch more.
And there’s no better example of this than the wonderful, polished “Soul Nativity,” a wonderful, brilliant production developed by Alfred Preisser, Director of Theatre, Harlem School of the Arts, and directed by Preisser’s highly successful protégé, the distinguished choreographer Tracy Jack, an HSA alumna.
This “soulful” production is based on Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity” of 1961, which has a place in theatre history as the first musical stage production to incorporate gospel. Preisser and Jack’s “Soul Nativity”, relying on gospel, R&B under the superb direction of Jeff Bolding, also enjoys theatre history: it places young people – and their challenges — squarely center stage in its multicultural showcase featuring excellent vocal, dance and dramatic performances by members of HSA’s core acting company, Young Theatre Alliance, ages 2 – 18.
It is an intergenerational play, as well. But not in a heavy-handed manner; seniors appear as guides, advisers, and, dare we say, a Greek chorus, offering a “way.”
The universal themes of hope, faith, love, caregiving are presented wonderfully through Ms. Jack’s choreography; Mr. Bolding’s multi-level musical direction of the HSA singers and the Voices of the Flame guest choir; Minister Melody Moore’s direction of the splendid Harlem Japanese Gospel Choir; and guitarist Thomas Doncker’s soul-rocking band.
But the lively musical/drama also advances the universal message of peace and goodwill by expressing the counterpoint concerns centering around: death, violence, injustice. In this production, the teen cast voices their anger and frustration in a world of terrorism, conflicts. So it’s no surprise that one highlight of the presentation is a poignant homage to Akai Gurley, Eric Garner and other recent victims of violence.
Just days before the production’s premiere on Dec. 12, it was decided that a moment for these young men would be incorporated.
Preisser observed how young Black men navigate so many possible perils, encountering edgy experiences moment to moment, just walking from one neighborhood to the next during the course of a day.
The homage is a good fit, here: graceful, appropriate and brilliant in its simplicity. Says Preisser, “After deciding it would be part of the production, we rehearsed it, and opening night, it was ready.”
The Harlem School of the Arts is a safe place, a place for young people to go where potentials are recognized, dreams actualized, lives transformed, stars created. And that is what happened with Ms. Jack.
We last saw her on stage at the Apollo Theatre performing in HSA’s “Black Nativity” at age 13, with our own staff member, Joanna Goodwin Williams.
Now Ms. Jack as founding director of Triple Threat Performing Arts Academy — a college prep music, theatre and dance ensemble in residence at Riverside Church — is giving rising stars a chance to fly, including her daughters, Naja Jack and Rain Jack. (The Misses Jack, during the course of Nativity’s lifetime and machinations, appeared as the Baby Jesus in separate years.) They, with their cast members, as reflected in these photos, are experiencing great joy with this new Nativity.
Yet, just when you think, Preisser, Jack, and Boldings’ explosion of creative ideas, have reached their peak, enter The Maji bopping to the Jackson Five’s “Dancing Machine” in full early ‘70’s regalia and colors. In fact, costumer Amanda McDowall copied the exact Jackson Five outfits exactly, right down to the suits, hats, and platform shoes.
And this Soul (Nativity) Train just doesn’t stop with its surprises. Did we mention that the girl group out-supremes the Supremes?
Though it’s an exercise in fun – (the night we were there it was like church with the audience jumping to its feet), “Soul Nativity”, a musical for every denomination, keeps reality in check; before the grand finale, the solemn plea is to stop (the violence) in the name of love.
The mission of HSA’s Young Theatre Alliance, is “to present the most challenging theatrical works possible with the highest level of artistry and commitment.” HSA is at the forefront on this. It also has been reported that HSA students are excelling if not improving in their grades.
“Soul Nativity’s” last days are tomorrow Friday, December 19 at 7p, Saturday, Dec. 20 at3p and 7p; and Sunday at 3p. Location: 649 Saint Nicholas Avenue, A, D, C to 145th. Limited tickets available. Visit: on line at www. hsanyc.org.
The production is part of HAS’s Family Enrichment series, possible through the support of NYC Department of Cultural Affairs and New York State Council of the Arts.

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