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Gospel According to Nam 

Karamu's annual production is restaged as an operetta.

Siri Sat Nam
  • Siri Sat Nam

Siri Sat Nam doesn't mince words: Langston Hughes had the right idea when he wrote Black Nativity; he just had one too many acts.

The Los Angeles-based director is in town to stage Karamu's African-inflected retelling of Jesus Christ's birth. In the first act, Mary gives birth while being serenaded by a gospel choir and flanked by dancers clad in Egyptian headdresses. But instead of treating the show like a fifth-grade Christmas pageant, Nam says, he took a novel approach. "I'm doing it as an operetta," he explains. "So even the script is being sung from beginning to end."

But Nam is quick to criticize the production's second act, which shifts to a modern-day church revival of musical testimonials inspired by black Christians. "You're coming there to see Christ being born," he says. "What reason do you have to come back to the second act?"

To compensate for the show's "structural problems," Nam focuses on the musical score and its praise-the-Lord gospel wails. "I don't want to draw attention to the weaknesses of the script," says Nam, whose many stage credits include roles on Broadway. "So, I'm offsetting it by enhancing it with the strongest element: the music."

Not only is Nam tweaking the piece, he's also taken on the chore of sequencing the dance steps. "I hate mindless choreography, with no justification, no reasoning, no dramatic element," says the former dancer, who's hoofed with the likes of Eartha Kitt, Donna Summer, and Juliet Prowse. "I want to make the movements seamless."

And to bring the show's true colors to its audience, Nam wants its relevance to be linked to Bible scholars, who claim that Jesus was a "woolly-haired black man" born in Africa. "It offers a means of celebration at Christmastime, especially with African Americans, in the way they worship Christianity and Jesus," Nam says. "Hey, it's an alternative to The Nutcracker."

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