AISLE SAY Seattle, Washington


A Gospel Song Play by Langston Hughes
Directed by Jacqueline Moscou
Starring Reverend Dr. Samuel B. McKinney,
Pastor Patrinell Wright
and the Total Experience Gospel Choir
Intiman Theatre
201 Mercer St., Seattle, WA 9898109 / (206) 269-1900

Reviewed by Jerry Kraft

From the moment the choir enters down the aisles, dressed in black robes with bright kinte scarves, clapping and shaking hands, it's clear that "Black Nativity" is an informal and raucous musical celebration. Now in its fourth year at Intiman, this joyous gospel evening celebrating the birth of Christ combines the writings of Langston Hughes, the exaltation of great gospel singing, and the warmth and inclusion of the African-American religious community. It is a combined effort of the Total Experience Gospel Choir and the Black Nativity Choir, along with the musicians, dancers and narrators.

The many parts of this presentation blend seamlessly. The stage movement, whether actual dance or just the rhythmic participation of the choir, keeps everything kinetic and visually exciting. The telling of the nativity story, through an enactment of Hughes' text, is simple and moving. The singers are impressive and impassioned, the musical ensemble tight and vibrant. In the second act, when the Reverend Dr. Samuel B. McKinney, the esteemed former pastor of Seattle's Mt. Zion Baptist Church, delivers a brief, eloquent sermon, the evening comes sharply into focus. This is a meeting of the Intiman congregation of the non-denominational Church of the Black Nativity, and all are welcome.

While the star of this show is clearly the assembled choir, in all its diversity and enthusiasm, there are clearly some standout talents. Pastor Patrinell Wright is an amazing singer, (as well as the founder of the Total Experience Gospel Choir) with wonderful range and tone, and she was featured through much of the first act. Jimi Ray Malary brought great dignity and stature to his a capella performance of "Sweet Little Jesus Boy". Bill Rogers performed the great Sam Cooke's "Wonderful" with taste and assurance. Overused as it may be, Karma Johnson delivered a wrenchingly sincere "Wind Beneath My Wings".

There really isn't much to criticize about this wonderful entertainment. Gospel music, with all of its characteristic flourishes and manners can sometimes get a bit tiring in large doses, but the evening had enough variety to keep that problem to a minimum. During the telling of the nativity story, for example, Bertram G. Johnson as Joseph and Erricka S. Turner as Mary danced beautifully, allowing simple but expansive movement to lend grace to their journey. The narrators, Cynthia Jones, Jimi Ray Malary, Pattrinell Wright and the Reverend McKinney are all splendid vocal talents, each with a distinctive style and delivery. The mixture of serious and comic elements, group and individual performance, as well as audience participation made the evening a rich and varied banquet of savory ingredients.

"Black Nativity" is a bright and moving contribution to the season's holiday offerings. The audience was delighted and involved throughout, and the joy and conviction of the performers was palpable. This is a Seattle treasure, and it was a thrill for me to experience it for the first time.

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