Cultural Affairs Columnist
One of the challenges in amassing a string of hits and unprecedented awards and accolades is the expectation that you will ever deliver same. During the first few moments of NSU’s opening night performance of their take on Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity,” I found myself in anxious anticipation, pondering how this performance might itself achieve stellar proportions. It appeared to lumber about somewhat.
With such a large cast, some 80-plus people, I attributed it to an opening night taboo, the sometimes overwhelming excitement and electricity that summons forth jitters or an uneasiness that broods beneath the surface.
But then the Angel Gabriel, actor Levonte Herbert, makes his entrance and you know that you are about to be treated to the director’s hallmark brand of excellence and inventiveness. Moments later, the cast appears to settle down and engages in a spiritual seduction of the audience that ultimately inspires a host of “Hallelujahs” and “Amens” from the audience.
I have not been bashful in these pages about heaping praise on Anthony Stockard, Director of the NSU Theater. His brief tenure in his role is best defined by unprecedented accomplishment, including several national awards. His presence in our midst is an extraordinary asset. His students are very fortunate to be under such heartfelt, genius tutelage. This production does not disappoint.
Though Herbert’s elocution skills might benefit from a modest bit of honing, his character’s accent and unbridled electricity at times unwieldy, his Gabriel is wholesale endearment. You cherish his every moment on the stage.
Similarly, Isaiah Roper, who doubles in characters as Joseph and the choir director, had articulation faintly rough around the edges. Yet, it was of little consequence, as his portrayal of Joseph was itself very endearing. We felt his agony at first word that Mary, who had not yet “known” him, was with child, and celebrated with him when he fully grasped the miracle that was now unfolding in her womb. This young man’s love for the stage is manifested in his humble submission to its might and the stage reciprocates, embracing him wholly.
As with Roper, the remarkable strength and power Kayla Gross brings to her performance as Elizabeth, appears to be rooted in her humility, her ease at surrendering to character. One might expect that her maturity has afforded her a mastery of subtlety that leaves her capable of crafting a solid character, at once maternal, while in awe of her own blessing, her own miracle. Gross also has a powerful, compelling voice. There are certainly some moving blues vocals hovering somewhere beneath the surface.
As strong as the aforementioned performances were, Stockard’s casting of Meredith Johnson as Mary deserves very special notice and provides noteworthy commentary on the theatre director’s distinct vision. I have seen Johnson consistently deliver exceptionally well-crafted characters, have shared with her in fact that she is something quite special. But in her portrayal of Mary, I became even more enamored with this young woman’s gift.
In my own humble estimation, the best character crafted is one that you wear like another layer of skin, whose proximity is so close that you actually have the sensation of being adorned in the living veneer of another persona. Yet, that is only an external manifestation of the exquisite experience of birthing that character and having it live within. No doubt, Johnson has mastered that art. All one need do is venture into her eyes and see that she is completely committed. Within the performance, she blossomed from blessed, awe-inspired ingénue to gracious motherhood, luminescent in knowledge that she had given birth to the Savior of mankind.
Stockard has delivered another hit and has assembled a talented cast and crew, only a single NSU faculty member amongst them, that has furthered his tradition of excellence. From the masterful musical accompaniments by Music Director Wynton Davis, inspired terpsichordal designs of tandem Choreographers Robert Garris and MyAsia Price-Cleare, and colorful offerings of Costume Designer Francine Taliferro, this “Black Nativity” is a spirit-filled treat that allowed the audience to take a walk with the people that lived during the time of Jesus Christ. There were several stars that rose in this production.