How ironic that the Goodman Theatre is playing host to Congo Square Theatre’s “Black Nativity” just down the hall from its “A Christmas Carol, ” a cash-cow shopworn spectacle still in search of a heart after three decades. While the throngs are heading to watch Marley, Scrooge and the like go through the motions yet again, a much smaller crowd is gathering to experience a show so full of emotion and sensitivity that it literally wears its heart on its sleeve. And while “Christmas Carol” has not changed a line or a set in more years than Marley has been as dead as a doornail, Congo Square’s “Black Nativity” has been completely rethought this year by New York director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, who takes the brilliant and bold step of setting Langston Hughes’ 1961 Christmas opus in the conflict-ridden Darfur region of western Sudan. “There is no God in Dafur,” a young, desperate pregnant woman says as she agonizes over the chaos that she is bringing a child into, only to be comforted by an angel and a subsequent dream of another birth brought about in hopeless circumstances some two millennia ago. These parallel birth stories and their parallel relevance resonate with deep overtones, highlighting the optimism, hope and potential reversal of social justice that new life can represent, whether in an ancient Judea brutally occupied by the “Pax Romana,” or in an African village being brutalized by tribal genocide. This dramatic arc brings more power to the proceedings, which are traditionally quite loose with one gospel song and Christmas carol following another, but here even many of those familiar words and melodies take on new meaning. The first-rate cast sing and dance their hearts out, and are clothed in colorful tribal garb and accompanied by lively and propulsive African djembes. For those in search of a deeper and more meaningful holiday experience than the usual ho-ho hum-bug, it is not be missed. (Dennis Polkow)
At the Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn, (312)443-3800. This production is now closed.