Published in KPBS On Air Magazine December 2004

Hark! The herald angels sing… in two languages! La Pastorela is back.

The pastorela is a folk-art form that was brought to the New World by Franciscan missionaries in the early 1500s. The tradition flourished, but remains especially strong in Mexico, where more than 2500 unique versions of the rhyming Christmas story are produced annually. Almost every city, town and village has its own adaptation. The San Diego edition began 15 years ago, with Teatro Máscara Mágica, which continues our own local, bilingual tradition in Balboa Park.

This medieval morality play could be considered the B-plot of the Nativity. The pastorela (from the Italian word for shepherd) tells the tale of the shepherds’ journey to Bethlehem to witness the birth of Jesus. The trip is fraught with temptations, distractions and dangers. Noble archangels battle nasty devils for the souls of humanity. Heroes and villains appear as popular figures from the news and from our diverse cultural heritage. The music includes Christmas carols sung in English and Spanish.

“Historically,” says director Bill Virchis, founder of Máscara Mágica, “the pastorela bears the combined influence of Christian myths and indigenous peoples. When we began the tradition here, in 1990, Raúl Moncada [Old Globe education associate] and I went to Mexico and saw 30 pastorelas — in clinics, parks, on the streets and in professional theaters. It was really exciting.”

Moncada wrote the script the first three years, then Max Branscomb took over, and made the piece more contemporary and satirical, using pop-culture icons.

The director and writer were colleagues at Southwestern College when they joined forces; Virchis taught theater and Branscomb was (and is) a professor of journalism. (Virchis is now District Director of the Visual and Performing Arts Department of the Sweetwater Union High School District).

Branscomb was only 19 when he wrote his first pastorela script. “I was terrified,” he confessed. “Raúl [Moncada] became my mentor. He liked my first script   — though he made me rewrite it six times — and he’s reviewed every one since.

“Over time, I got a little looser and bolder, as I got more confident. Then the scripts started to become more political and edgy. We make light of what’s going on in our nation. Last year, U.S. troops captured Saddam Hussein in the middle of the run. So we changed the script. Part of the fun is the flexibility of the form. It drives actors nuts, but it keeps the show relevant. ”

Branscomb admits to knowing only “about 4th grade Spanish,” but that doesn’t bother him or his bilingual collaborator. “I feel that if I put too sophisticated Spanish in the script, it’d alienate people. This way, fluent Spanish-speakers appreciate it and so do non-Spanish speakers. It’s a tough balancing act, but I think we’ve got it right. Our audiences [mostly sellout crowds] are about 45% white, 45% Latino and about 10% other folks.

“We let the audience know right off the bat that the rules of the theater are different here,” adds Branscomb. “They can talk, clap, sing along, get up and dance. Bill [Virchis] has a real genius for involving the audience.”

Branscomb taps into the news and the zeitgeist for his contemporary characters, which have included, as good guys, the Ninja Turtles, Batman, Spider Man and Cesar Chavez. His bad guys have ranged from “vigilantes and coyotes that hassle immigrants to right-wing talk-radio hosts.”

“The whole point for me,” Branscomb explains, “is shining a light on injustice in our society, and sticking up for underdogs. I think that’s what theater should do. We should have fun and laugh, but go away thinking about other people, and maybe even doing something to help them.”

This year, Branscomb’s topical references focus on the Iraq war, gas prices, inflation and the election. Local heroes in the script include the American Friends Service Committee, which helps the poor and dispossessed. The devils will be drawn from, among other places, the TV shows ‘Fear Factor’ and ‘The Apprentice,’ both of which, says Branscomb “are all about greed.” He’ll also tackle immigration, acknowledging “the San Diego performing and visual artists who’ve taken a stand on border issues.”

The cast usually features about two dozen performers, ranging from infancy to age 80, many of whom have been with the show for years. For the tenth time, Tim Evans plays Satan. And Rhys Green once again portrays the Devil’s sidekick, Moloch. A few professionals mingle with the amateurs, who participate, says Virchis, “in order to give voice to their culture. Whole families, generations, have come through this show. And they stay with us.”

It’s great fun, says Branscomb, but the story is really all about hope and rebirth. “In the play, the people have to look inside themselves for strength. They get a new chance to make different choices and get it right. I’ve watched it hundreds of times, and I still get choked up at the end. Audiences do, too.”

“It’s a play for California,” says Virchis, referring to our Latino history and residents. “And it’s a play for all time. It’s not just about Christmas. It’s about morality, politics, spirituality, diplomacy and making choices. And with its humor and music, it brings out the child in all of us.”

[Teatro Máscara Mágica’s La Pastorela runs Dec. 10-31 at the Cassius Carter Centre Stage; 619-23-GLOBE • ]

©2004 Patté Productions Inc.