African-American Themed Production Gets Rave Reviews
'Tis the season for a multitude of holiday-themed theatrical performances. Although the years change, the majority of Christmas plays and musicals tend to stick to the tried-and-true formula centered on the traditional nativity story.
Inspired by the lack of artistic creativity and innovation, a local songwriter set out to change the status quo. A decade later, his dream is now a reality.
"This has been 10 years in the making," said Nolan Williams, Jr., 43. "I wanted to bring some kind of major piece to the arts landscape during the holiday season that would reflect African-American faith and values," the well-known music director of Voices of Inspiration said.
Christmas Gift! rolled through the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in College Park on Dec. 14 and 15 and opened before more than 600 people at the center's Ina and Jack Kay Theatre on Friday evening. The production ran just over two hours in length, which included an intermission.
Williams, Christmas Gift's! director and producer, enlisted the help of nationally-known rhythm-and-blues artists Shirley Murdock and John Stoddart to round out the more than 30 Voices of Inspiration choir members who soulfully, and sometimes in a capella, belted out African-American spirituals as well as more traditional Christmas carols. The choir, and its accompanying musical ensemble, performed selections such as What Child is This?, Have You Heard About the Baby? and Go Tell It on the Mountain. The music, fused with spoken-word poetry written by W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and other accomplished African-American poets, coalesced to provide a memorable evening.
"The voices and harmonies are great and they really got me into the Christmas spirit," said Howard Stone, 60, who lives in Mitchellville, Md. "This has been much more than I expected and I personally think that it should be bound for Broadway. I want our black children to see this performance because it will really give them a sense of pride."
Despite the size of the 622-seat, state-of-the-art theatre, Christmas Gift! provided an intimate experience for concertgoers. Female Voices of Inspiration choir members donned vibrant crimson red blouses and black skirts while the male members sported tuxedos. Poinsettias lined two corners of the Proscenium-style stage and a massive projection screen located behind the choir displayed Christmas images that changed with each song and poetry selection.
Curtis Swafford lives in Tampa, Fla., and wanted his twin grandsons to experience a different take on the traditional Christmas story. Swafford's daughter, Joy, is a Voices of Inspiration choir member. While he cherished the opportunity to hear her perform, the entire Christmas Gift! performance offered much more.
"I appreciate the fact that I'm able to bring them here and expose them to this kind of event," said Swafford, 60, who pastors a church in Florida. "It's just an exciting and fabulous production. We're all really enjoying this."
Swafford's nine-year-old grandson Nicholas Swafford-Sims echoed his grandfather's sentiments.
"I really liked the singing and dancing," said Nicholas, while his brother Nathaniel looked on with a smile.
Perhaps one of Christmas Gift's! defining moments occurred during the show's rendition of Robert Nathaniel Dett's classic, Ave Maria. The theatre's lights dimmed; Voices of Inspiration choir members held candles and wowed the audience with their moving version of the popular hymn which they performed in Latin. Another highlight of the evening was Murdock's rendition of Wihla Hutson and Alfred Burt's carol, Some Children See Him. Throughout the song, images of infants from different races flashed across the high-definition projection screen.
Williams, who lives in Northwest, hopes Christmas Gift! inspires other African-American directors and producers to create more African-American themed holiday presentations.
"Not taking anything away from our arts' landscape [in the District], that's really wonderful, but it seems that during the holiday season, there should be [a] seminal kind of production that diversifies the landscape," said Williams. "And that's what we are seeking to do with the Christmas Gift! project."
Christmas Gift! received rave reviews from those who attended.
Elizabeth Hewlett lives in Bowie, Md., and said the production offered more than she expected.
"The performance was absolutely magnificent," said Hewlett. "I loved every bit of it and it was wonderfully inspirational. It exceeded my every expectation," she said with a smile.