By John Quinn
Plowshares makes a joyful noise in holiday premiere
My favorite story about Christmas music concerns 18-year-old Isaac Watts. In 1692 he went to his father, an Anglican deacon, and complained about the boring church music. Dad’s answer was along the lines of “If you’re so smart, let’s see you come up with something better.” Isaac did. We call it “Joy to the World” (not with the bullfrog – the other one).
I think Watts would appreciate the Christmas present Plowshares Theatre Company has brought us this year. The world premiere of “He is Christmas” is a joyful celebration of the season from an African-American perspective, a rich – and never boring – musical heritage.
“He is Christmas” was written and directed by Gary Anderson, artistic director of Plowshares Theatre Company. The time is now. The place is a small Detroit church. Gathered for a celebration are the pastor, deacons and choir, ably backed by a slick jazz trio. They act out the nativity story in narrative and music; some parts are very old, and some brand new. The audience/congregation can participate just as if we were really in church. Along the way, we learn our Gospel lessons in a new and entertaining way.
A few of the “old” numbers are drawn from African-American traditional music, but many are of European heritage. It’s delightful that these latter pieces tend to start in conventional European style, only to glide into a sweet jazz-flavored gospel rendition.
Among the original songs in the show, “Plenty Good Room,” Joseph’s optimistic accompaniment to his fruitless search for room at the inn, is a real standout.
While Anderson draws uniformly excellent performances from his cast, of special note are Augustus Williamson as the Pastor and Rhonda Freya English as the Deaconess. Williamson’s “shaking out” of the traditional Yule carol, “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” in his rich bass-baritone is especially satisfying. English, so compelling in the Plowshares season opener, “Home,” demonstrates she is at home in either European or African-American musical traditions.
Greedy child that I am, all the candy in this Christmas stocking only leaves me wanting more. This show is short; after all, when one takes as his structure the simple narrative of the Gospel of Matthew, we get a story uncluttered with additions of little drummer boys or lame children guiding night visitors. But if Anderson can follow through with the hints in his welcoming speech, we might see “He is Christmas” become a Detroit holiday tradition. A growing, evolving seasonal entertainment might be just the right antidote to the December tradition of commercial excess.
“He is Christmas” Staged Thursday through Sunday by Plowshares Theatre at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, 315 E. Warren, Detroit, through Dec. 21. Tickets: $10 – $25. 313-872-0279. www.plowshares.org.
The Bottom Line: You already know the story – now go for the music.