Dennis Spears Gives it all in 'Black Nativity'

Dennis Spears in Black Nativity
photo by jamey guy. hair design by anthony johnson. makeup by kailyn foster. fashion consultant keith dorsett

Dennis Spears is the artistic director for the Legends Music Series at north Minneapolis’ Capri Theater and a company member at St. Paul’s Penumbra Theater, where he is appearing this month in their annual holiday production of Black Nativity.

“I grew up in Mangham, Louisiana, where I was raised by my grandparents. My grandfather had a huge farm, so I grew up as a farm boy doing dirty farm work, singing to the cows, and dreaming of growing up to sing professionally. It seemed like a far-fetched dream because there was no training anywhere around there for that kind of work and I didn’t know anyone who did it.” 

“We weren’t allowed to play secular music in my grandparents’ house. If it wasn’t “Amazing Grace,” they didn’t want to hear it. But Christmas was the one time of year when we could play Nat King Cole—his Christmas album—while we put up the tree. The first time I heard it, I knew that’s what I wanted to be. And [my portrayal of Nat King Cole in Penumbra’s production of I Wish You Love is] what I ended up winning the Ivey Award for in 2011.” 

“I was inducted into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame in 2013 alongside Prince, Bob Dylan, and Judy Garland. It was mind-blowing to me that this journey had led this country boy to this place, and that people really respected my work and I mattered. It was a huge celebration and great validation that I had followed the right path.”

“Here at the Capri, we’re using theater and music as a means to give inner-city youth a voice and the knowledge that they can stand and speak and their voices matter. It’s part of my ministry to share the gifts of music and performance with these kids. I bought a home in this community, and my church is here—the Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, which we lovingly refer to as ‘the ship,’ because, baby, it rocks. It’s a very spirit-filled, rocking place.” 

“Our minister of music, Sanford Moore, and choir director, Yolande Bruce, will be doing the backup vocals for Black Nativity again this year. That’s a large part of what makes Black Nativity rock the way it does—that grounding in gospel music that we get to experience every Sunday. When Yolande and that choir get going, you gotta jump and shout. I tease the Lutherans who come to the show because they don’t usually celebrate the way Southern Baptists do, but the music makes them jump up out of their seats with everyone else.”

“I will not go onstage and give less
than what I’ve been blessed to give,
 and with Black Nativity I’m more
than able to do that.”

“I’ve been blessed to perform in Black Nativity for more than 20 years now. As a kid at Christmas, I was focused on ‘What’s Santa going to bring me?’ but as I grew up I learned that giving feels even better than receiving.” 

“Regardless of what your beliefs are, this is a season of giving. One of the things I learned from my grandmother is: What comes from the heart goes to the heart. I will not go onstage and give less than what I’ve been blessed to give, and with Black Nativity I’m more than able to do that. The gift of love is the core of the whole show. The music is made with love, the story is based in love, and when you walk into Penumbra, even the ushers greet you with love.”

Web Extra: Video and photos of Dennis Spears