KPBS AIRDATE: December 22, 1993
It’s a multicultural Christmas at the Cassius Carter. On alternating nights, you can get a humorous Latino telling of the Christmas story, or an exuberant, African-American version. Both are community-based productions, not primarily performed by professionals. Both pieces are told in verse, both emanate from folk origins, and both are accompanied by lots of singing. In both cases, the music carries the evening.
In “La Pastorela Magica,” produced by Teatro Máscara Mágica, it’s actually not the main event that we get, not the tale of Joseph and Mary; it’s what’s referred to as the ‘subplot.’ A group of shepherds is visited by an angel, who directs them to seek out the baby Jesus. On the way, they are tempted and tormented by the devil. The pastorela is an age-old Spanish telling of the story of the resistance to temptation, the triumph of good over evil, and the rewards of perseverance in seeking and finding God. It’s also supremely silly, and geared as much for jubilation as for salvation.
The cast interacts with the audience and recruits them to sing along with the various Christmas carols, printed in the program in Spanish and English.
Anasa Briggs Graves makes a return appearance as Lucifer, but she still does little more than scream. As her two sidekicks, Satan and Moloch, Zachary Chapin and Eusebio Chavez Barba provide most of the comic relief, though Chava Burgueño also deserves mention as Bato. The rest of the 26-member cast is spirited, if not vocally gifted, and director Bill Virchis keeps them all moving, mostly in circles around the reconfigured Cassius Carter, which is only three-sided for these productions, to accommodate the musicians. There are a lot of local references, and a welcome addition: more sharp political commentary than in previous versions. Mostly, it’s pretty goofy, but all in good fun, and the kids love the piñata-busting outside at the end.
In a much more serious and spiritual vein, Southeast Community Theatre once again gives us “Black Nativity,” the “gospel song-play” by poet Langston Hughes, wherein the glory of the virgin birth is told and retold.. and retold. This year, there are several pre-story prologues: First, an older woman explains Christmas to her visiting grandchildren. Cut to a Christmas morning church service, everyone all jazzed up in holiday finery (and some fine-lookin’ hats!) The minister becomes the narrator for the rest of the evening, as we view a re-enactment of the plight of Mary and Joseph and the shepherds. The third act takes us to a blistering, foot-stompin’ revival meeting, the 14-member singing cast bedecked in choir robes and testafyin’ to beat the band. The band, by the way, is terrific.
The whole show, in fact, is just an excuse for some fabulous singing. Floyd Gaffney’s direction has its high and low points, but it’s all incidental to the music. The special guest group, First Commandment, does a wonderful job in its solos and ensemble work. But all the singers are powerful, and the full chorus has amazing grace.
I never have been as emotionally moved as I was the first time I saw “Black Nativity” years ago, in a cramped little space downtown. But I keep being physically moved to clap and tap and sway and ‘Amen’ with the rest and the best of them.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.