The Bay Area’s African-American theaters’ holiday shows continue through this weekend: Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity, a gospel-infused story of the first Christmas, staged by Lorraine Hansberry Theatre Company in San Francisco; Cinderella, a Louisiana-flavored twist on a camped-up Christmas “pantomime,” at African American Shakespeare’s newly-renovated Buriel Clay Theatre in San Francisco’s Western Addition; and a solo show by comedian and author Paul Mooney, equally known for his comedy, books and being a writer for Richard Pryor, at Berkeley’s Black Repertory Theatre, through Dec. 31.
The first two shows are on their way to becoming local traditions.
Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, performing on various stages since the loss of their venue near Union Square (they’ll mount Athol Fugard’s Coming Home in association with Berkeley Rep on the Thrust Stage, Jan. 15–Feb. 28), is putting on their version of Black Nativity at Marines Memorial Theatre, across the street from their old location. The show is directed by co-founder Stanley Williams with Arvis Strickling-Jones as musical director and choreography by Michael Montgomery.
The featured performer this year is Debra Q. Henderson, psalmist and Gospel recording artist.
Opening Hansberry’s 29th season, Black Nativity is an annual production renewed every year with the addition of new songs and the introduction of new performers. The songs include Christmas carols sung with a gospel twist.
The show, which Hughes called “a gospel song play” with choral and solo singing, dance, poetry and narrative, opens with a reenactment of the story of the manger in Bethlehem, the birth of Jesus (to African drumming) and the visit of the Three Wise Men (who have been played in many productions by men prominent in the African-American community). The second part takes place at Christmas in the present, in a gospel church, with the magnificence of the singing, side by side with the humor of some of the churchgoers and their social goings-on.
The original production, coming from Hughes’ Wasn’t It a Might Day?, based on the Gospel According to Luke, was in 1959 (and thereafter) at Trent Temple in Boston. The first Broadway show, Dec. 11, 1961, was abandoned before opening by cast members Allen Ailey and Carmen de Lavallande, who walked over the word “black” in the title. It went on to rave reviews and was mounted at the 1962 Spoleto Festival in Italy.
African American Shakespeare’s Cinderella doesn’t wait halfway through to let the humor rip. Taking a leaf from old burlesque Christmas pantos, the company, which has staged this cockeyed fairytale for nine years, milks the fun out of a pair of Ugly Sisters that could’ve just stepped out of a locker-room: Zorita (Martin Grizell) and Shaniqua (Abbie Rhone), who flash Prince Charming’s pages and wrestle each other over who will get the Prince himself, before trying to squeeze their clodhoppers into the glass slipper.
This fast-paced silliness is contrasted with the genuine charm of the romantic leads (Delina Brown in the title role and Detroit Dunwood as the Prince) and a masquerade ball—with some raucous modern stepping choreographed by Patrick Gallineaux of the Cheryl Burns Dance Studio—set in the French Quarter. A couple of Cajun rustics (can the bayous be far behind?) add “a little French cadence,” according to Sherri Young, African American Shakespeare’s founder, who directed “our Christmas Carol” for her third time to open the company’s 15th year.
Melvina Hayes portrays the nastiness of the Wicked Stepmother; Belinda Sullivan plays the Grandmother, who opens the show from her rocking chair, telling the story to a bunch of rapt grandchildren, before morphing into the fairy Godmother.
Black Is the New White, the title of both Paul Mooney’s new book and his solo show at the Black Rep on Adeline, puts forth further thoughtful comic perspectives by the man who’s written about writing for and running with Richard Pryor and the performer who, appearing as Negrodamus the soothsayer on TV during the lead-up to war, answered a question from the audience asking why President Bush was so convinced there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq with: “Because he holds the receipts!”
Presented by Lorraine Hansberry Theatre at 2 p.m. Thursday (Christmas Eve matinee); 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; and 4 p.m. Sunday through Dec. 27. Marines Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter, San Francisco. $34-$40 (Saturday: $20 all seats). (415) 771-6900. www.LHTSF.com.
Presented by African American Shakespeare at 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 26 at Buriel Clay Theatre, 762 Fulton, San Francisco. $20-$30. 1-800-838-3006. www.african-americanshakes.org.
BLACK IS THE NEW WHITE
One-man show featuring Paul Mooney, Dec. 26-31 at Black Repertory Group, 3201 Adeline. $25-$100 (New Years soulfood and champagne gala). 652-2120. (925) 812-2787 (hotline). www.blackrepertorygroup.com.