at New Freedom Theatre

December 2, 2016

by Neil Newman

Fifty years is a very long time for an arts group to exist in this changing world and economy, but Freedom Theatre is celebrating its golden anniversary with a reconceived production of its traditional favorite Black Nativity.

I first saw Black Nativity in a tiny theater in the Broad and Master complex in a production directed by John E Allen, Jr. It was small scale and touching. Then Walter Dallas directed a larger production with exciting choreography by Patricia Scott Hobbs. That version followed the outline of Langston Hughes Off-Broadway show, with an African nativity in the first act and a very American gospel service in the second. It was memorable.

This has now been totally rethought by new artistic director/author Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj who has created a joyful evening of drumming and dance with a entirely new twist. This is a very different Black Nativity from those offered in other cities.

Maharaj’s vision is a 95 minute musical that combines traditional European carols (“Silent Night”, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”) with spirituals (“Wade in the Water”, “Amazing Grace”) all accompanied by the complex rhythms of an African drum, (and a rainstick for the quieter moments), played by the stunning Lo McDowell. Sometimes it doesn’t work (Georg F. Handel will probably always resist Africanization), but most of the evening brings amazing rewards. The Regney/Baker pop-carol “Do You Hear What I Hear” assumes surprising resonance when delivered with stirring African choral harmonies. Even “What Child is This?” (which is really the old English “Greensleeves”) is enhanced by adding an African beat.

Add to this an amazing company of singer dancers, each of whom is given a moment to reveal their amazing skills, and the result is spellbinding.  This is one of those productions that has so much energy that one wonders if the performance can ever be repeated. The show closes December 18th and hopefully they will all survive until then. The drumming and dancing almost never stops, and it took four choreographers to bring it off (Maharaj, Sanchel Brown, Julian Darden, and Danzel Thompson-Stout). Just amazing. The musical direction of Taylor Samuels is so spot-on, with its extensive choral singing that you totally forget that there is no orchestra; just the drumming.


The sets and costumes are Africa supreme. Marley Boone dresses the cast in the most colorful and elegant robes imaginable, (look out especially for those angels). The set (designed by Maharaj, Ken Jordan and James Smallwood) keeps the action moving, with its large mobile of Africa and a bright star, (moody lighting by Andrew Cowles)  dominating the proceedings. Anthony Hughes sound design is clear and loud, but as the sound emits from speakers above the stage, is it often difficult to discern who is speaking or singing.  The cast has strong voices and one is tempted to suggest pulling the plug. It might be more powerful. Or maybe not.

But wait, before you purchase that plane ticket to Africa, there’s more.  Maharaj’s Black Nativity tells not one but two stories. First is the traditional one where Joseph (the lovable Jordan Dobson), and Mary (a radiant Leedea Harrison) find no room at the inn. Their a cappella rendition of “O Holy Night is a standout. This is interspersed with a modern story set in Darfur, the site of numerous atrocities including rape, terrorism, and murder.There is a Darfur/Mary, (Lauren Morgan) who is separated from her imprisoned Darfur/Joseph, (James Pitts, Jr.) and is soon to be a mother. Unlike Biblical/Mary, who looks forward to the birth, Darfur/Mary contemplates suicide, as the world is too terrible a place for a new child. This conflation results in some chilling moments. Soon after the three wise men sing “We Three Kings” their royal staffs seem to morph into rifles and the same actors begin to brutally beat and terrorize their victims.Morgan also brings the house down with the very un-holiday “Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child.” You’ll want to cash in that plane ticket for a donation to Save Darfur.

This idea works splendidly on an intellectual level, as it reminds us that Africa and its people are a complex and frequently unfathomable organism.  But the show is lacking a strong book, (not that Black Nativity ever had one), that would give Darfur/Mary a specific characterization we could emotionally relate to.Ultimately, it doesn’t matter.

The superb company includes Julian Darden, Nicholas Trawick, Sanchel Brown, Sophiann Moore and Danzel Thompson-Stout. Philadelphia’s own African American theatre is rejuvenated on its golden anniversary. That’s quite a Christmas present.

Running Time: 95 minute, without an intermission.

December 2, 2016

by Sofiya Ballin

Chance the Rapper, on his 2016 mixtape Coloring Book, rapped: "Jesus black life aint matter."

On Thursday night at the  Freedom Theater, Black Nativity: An African Musical Playbrought attention to the many black lives lost due to genocide in Sudan. 

Opening on the famed  theater's 50th anniversary, Black Nativity was directed and choreographed by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, the newly named director of the company, who based it on the 1961 play by Langston Hughes. It has become something of a tradition to adapt Hughes' play to different locales, and this production sets it boldly in modern-day Darfur, Sudan. The theater partnered with Save Darfur and What's Up Africa to raise money  and facilitate conversations on issues that country faces.

The musical juxtaposes the stories of the biblical Mary and Joseph and a Darfur Mary and Joseph. But Darfur Mary's husband, Joseph, is missing, and she's on the verge of giving birth in a refugee camp. Strong-willed, she staves off her pain until she finds him. Later in the play, she details how her village was ravaged by the militia and how she has seen her loved ones killed viciously. She yells, "There is no God in Darfur!" 

"To move ahead, we must go back!" is the chant as Darfur Mary is taken back in time by the Angel Gabriel. It's through biblical Mary and Joseph's story and guidance that she regains hope.

The production channels the African principle of sankofa ("go back and get it”), which was also a theme in Maharaj’s The Ballad of Trayvon Martin, staged in May at the New Freedom.

The production of Black Nativity  is both a singular twist to the story and a subtle declaration that the idea of a black Jesus isn't a twist at all. It smartly mixes generations, dance, and genres of music, from spirituals to traditional hymns, from "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" to "Lift Every Voice and Sing" to "Wade in the Water." The entire thing is pulled off by a cast of triple threats who  act, sing, and dance, all with a Sudanese accent.

But there was a need for more dialogue to break up the singing and to guide viewers through the scenes.

What was clear, above all, was the Pan-African and cross-generational messages, with raised fists and vibrant choreography. Darfur Mary's hope amid so much tragedy and trauma is triumphant. Black Nativity is a production with strong music and an even stronger message.

December 3, 2016

by Kimberly C. Roberts

An enthusiastic audience recently filled the exquisite New Freedom Theatre for a re-imagined production of “Black Nativity: An African Holiday Musical Play,” and as someone who has covered the repertory company for nearly 20 years, I could feel that it was a brand-new day on North Broad Street.

Playing in the John E. Allen Jr. Theatre through Dec. 18, the refreshing presentation also helps celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary under a new artistic director.

Written and directed by artistic director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj and featuring a simple but dramatic rotating bi-level set, the musical tells the parallel stories of two couples: the biblical Mary and Joseph as well as a couple with the same names having a baby and living in a refugee camp in the Darfur region of Sudan.

Darfur Mary (Lauren Mogan) is heavily pregnant and has just gone into labor. Her husband, Darfur Joseph (James Pitts Jr.) has been missing.

When Mary refuses to give birth until her husband has returned safely, she is visited by the angel Gabriel (Danzel Thompson-Stout), who takes her back in time to the evening of the birth of the Christ child. Upon meeting biblical Mary (Leedea Harrison) and biblical Joseph (Jordan Dobson), Darfur Mary is challenged to trust in God’s grace and power to get her through the birth of her child and the hardships that come with living in modern-day Darfur.

With her new-found faith, Darfur Mary returns to the present and gives birth.

The entire production was performed to the sound of a single African drum, expertly played by Lo McDowell, and featured such Christmas classics as “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “Silent Night,” “Do You Hear What I Hear,” “O Holy Night,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.”

There were also the sacred standards “Amazing Grace” “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “His Eye on the Sparrow” in the repertoire.

This is a sincere and sensitive effort by Maharaj, who has a deep and genuine concern for the people, particularly the women, of Darfur. However, I believe that the parallel story lines may have been a bit confusing for some, and while it’s always good to hear Christmas classics, several of the songs could have been cut without affecting the continuity or impact of the production.

My deepest concern is that some of the cast members are over-singing, and are at serious risk of losing their voices before the end of the run. As Darfur Mary, Lauren Morgan spends quite a bit or her time crying out in anguish (“There is no God in Darfur!”), and singing at full volume. I’d advise her to be careful.

I was most impressed by the fact that every member of the ensemble could both sing and dance. While some were better at singing and others excelled in dance, everyone appeared to be equally comfortable doing both. A challenging and spectacular amalgamation of African, hip-hop and contemporary dance, the choreography by Sanchel Brown, Julian Darden, Majaraj and cast member Danzel Thompson-Stout was performed to perfection by the young artists, who absolutely radiated the sheer joy of dance.

With vibrant costumes by Marley Boone, heart-felt performances, and a palpable spirit and commitment that permeates the entire cast and crew, “Black Nativity” symbolizes a new direction and a new vision for Freedom Theatre at 1346 N Broad St.