We were huddled together in the lobby of In the Heart of the Beast, uncertain as to whether we should unbundle ourselves. Layers peeled off slowly, a hat here, a coat there, but no one knew quite when we would venture back out into the December night. My phone weather app registered the temperature as one single degree Fahrenheit, somewhere between crisp and arctic. We knew the show involved processing - the theater website mandates that audiences be mobile and dressed appropriately for the outdoors - but we did not know when or where our journey would lead us that night. Eventually, a voice rang out, not unlike an announcing angel, dividing us into groups and sending us off with our stalwart, yellow-vested guide. “Bundle up,” they proclaimed, “And take care of each other.”
It's a lovely sort of thesis statement for the night. La Natividad honors the Mexican tradition of La Posada where celebrants re-enact Mary and Joseph's search for shelter. Taking this journey alongside Maria and Jose, as they are called in this version, builds a deep sense of empathy and appreciation for the hospitality of the holiday season. This is when we should all be taking care of each other. Presented in partnership with St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church, La Natividad is faithful to the Christmas story's Biblical roots with angels and shepherds and wise men, but the production never loses sight of the fact that they are telling this two thousand year old story today, in both English and Spanish. It's a testament to our current political climate that this inclusivity feels somewhat radical. Jose himself observes this when filling out his census forms. “Have you now or have you ever been a member of any subversive groups?” the form asks.
“I follow God,” Jose replies, “and God subverts all things.”
Where does the story begin, or end?
From the television broadcast that announces the decree from Caesar Augustus, to Herod referring to the three wise men as “undocumented foreigners,” the play keeps guiding the audience back to the here and now. Maria is pulled from the audience by the angels, at first appearing to be a young Latina audience member. As she receives the news of her role to play and doubt gives way to acceptance, she puts on her mask, becoming Maria, mother of Jesus, but that glimpse of her humanity allows room for the story to expand. Is she an archetype? Is she a young woman today in need of shelter? Where does the woman end and the story begin?
This double consciousness, straddling the ancient and the immediate is constantly brought to the forefront. The puppet theater in our second stop was bordered by large cardboard walls with pictures of children and questions like “When will I have clean water?” “Where will I sleep tonight?” As we left the space, I overheard a woman behind me explain to her children the relationship between the ancient Jews and the Romans in Bethlehem. “I think we're supposed to think about immigrant families today,” she said, “and how they're like Mary and Joseph.” I certainly did.
It's not just a story for this particular time, but for this specific place as well. As we entered Jigjiga Center to hear Jose's side of the story, we were greeted by a guitar strumming Nico Pawlowsk who observed that this neighborhood was likely new to some of us, and encouraged us to come back and eat at the restaurants and shop at the mercados. There's a deep love for the Phillips neighborhood in this piece. It felt like community theater in the best and most hopeful sense of the phrase – theater for and by the community. From the brightly colored cardboard angel wings to the particularly enthusiastic mouse who ran up and down the church aisles squeaking long after the rest of the nativity animals had taken their spot, this was a production filled with charm and warmth.
But be forewarned, much of the warmth will be in your hearts, because the Posada procession is real and outside. Initially, we traveled just across the street and back, but the final trek to the church feels longer than the two blocks advertised. I came on opening night and it seemed like the candle distribution system caused the audience to bottleneck and spend extra time in the cold.
Outdoor scenes worth braving the cold
But, the scenes outside do have big impact. I really enjoyed catching glimpses of the next scene in the distance and the experience of approaching the barrier together. Seeing a distorted Herod buried in the wreckage of his own wall was cathartic. Performers aimed flashlights at the puppets to light the scene and when we reached our final destination, the curved shadow of the star of Bethlehem appeared on the wall of the church, looming large and strange and beautiful.
There are many moments that stuck with me: the first enormous puppet dwarfing the elaborate murals of Las Mojarras restaurant, Jose banging his head on the desk, a bearded angel playing the French horn as we followed the star outside. It's a thoughtful and beautiful rendition of the Christmas story that never loses sight of the human lessons the story can teach us today. It's easy to get caught up in the wonder of the moment. As the fantastic cavalcade of unlikely animals (Christmas llama! Christmas raccoon! Christmas wolves!) paid homage to the baby Jesus, the joy of the performers, the enthusiasm of the young puppeteers, and the relief of the audience to be out of the cold rolled together into a explosion of delightful, puppet-filled chaos. Forget the Herdmans, this is the Best Christmas Pageant Ever.
As icing on the Yule log, the performance itself is followed by a party with music and piñatas and hot soup served by a rotating crew of local churches. It's a delightful holiday experience, and well worth braving the Minnesota winter to experience La Natividad. Along with some high impact puppetry, traditional Christmas story, and the tiniest toddling star child you've ever seen poke a shepherd awake, the program contains what is now my favorite three words to find in a program: “Please enjoy piñatas.” Don't mind if I do.