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The joyful side of religion

By COLETTE BANCROFT, Times Staff Writer
Published December 20, 2004

As the lights went down at the Palladium Theater on Sunday afternoon, a voice came from the speakers with the usual messages, thanking sponsors and reminding the audience to turn off cell phones.

"During this performance," the voice said, "you may shout "amen' or "hallelujah,' but because of fire codes, please keep the aisles clear."

Good to clarify that, because the production of Black Nativity that followed brought out a lot of hallelujahs from the virtually full house.

Produced by the recently shut-down Mahaffey Theater Foundation, Black Nativity had a bumpy road to the stage, moving from Mahaffey to the Palladium halfway through rehearsals, and shifting from three performances to two, from paid admission to free.

Written by poet and playwright Langston Hughes in 1961, the "gospel song play" tells the story of Jesus Christ's birth in dance and song, ranging in this production from traditional carols through gospel music to a Quincy Jones arrangement of the Hallelujah Chorus.

Black Nativity 's large, multiracial cast was a mix of pros, students and amateurs from all over the Tampa Bay area, and director Bob Devin Jones and choreographer Paulette Walker Johnson made the most of them. Wherever they might have been short on polish, they made it up in energy and heart.

Black Nativity may be a community show, but it unquestionably had a star. As the narrator and leading singer, Sharon Scott ruled the stage with her warm, commanding presence and powerhouse voice.

During her mighty solo rendition of Mary Did You Know, the audience couldn't wait until she finished, giving her two rounds of applause during the song and a standing ovation at the end.

Other standout performers included B. Dexter Lewis and Jonathan Sullivan, who with Scott sang the pyrotechnic opening of Go Tell It on the Mountain, and Kendrick Davis, Charles Smith, Ebone Johnson and Leonard Williams in the jazzy No-Good Shepherd Boy.

Darryl Rouson was convincing as the second act's preacher, adding a somber note from the local news to his sermon: "Let's be thankful that we can go to Subway and Radio Shack, because we're alive."

Johnson's choreography was especially effective in Wade in the Water and the opening Joy to the World, and music director LaTerry Butler led a versatile four-man band.

The bare stage, Joseph Oshry's artful lighting design and the simple costumes, mostly white with touches of purple and gold, left the focus on the performers.

Whatever your beliefs might be, in a world where religion is so often used as wedge, Black Nativity was a fine reminder of its joyful side.

[Last modified December 20, 2004, 08:41:52]

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