After moving to Arizona, I learned that the story of shepherds journeying to witness the nativity in Bethleham has been recounted for centuries in “pastorela” plays that blend Latino and Native American cultures. They’re performed each Christmas across Arizona and beyond.
One particular pastorela has garnered national attention for its political prowess. James Garcia, a Valley playwright, often writes pastorelas that capture controversial topics. One “American Pastorela” was subtitled “The Saga of Sheriff Joe.” But this year’s offering pokes serious fun at those who’ve banned ethnic studies programs at schools. Hence the subtitle “Everything You Wanted to Know About Ethnic Studies But Were Afraid to Ask.”
Garcia is the founder and artistic director for New Carpa Theater, which specializes in Latino and multicultural theater works. They’re presenting this year’s “American Pastorela” through Sunday (see note below) at the Third Street Theater, located at Phoenix Center for the Arts. Despite the sometimes ideologically racy content, Garcia says his kids loved it, and suspects others will too. There are seven children ages 7-17 in the cast, including one “sweet little girl (who) breaks into Broadway tunes at the drop of a hat.”
Borderlands Theater in Tucson presents “A Tucson Pastorela” through Sunday as well. It’s the work of Wendy Burke, Eric Magrane and “the pastorela ghost writers” — and features band director Gertie Lopez. Pastorelas typically pit those making the pilgrimage to Bethlehem against various challenges — including Satan, and things more suggestive of contemporary experiences. Hence their inclusion of Arizona’s evil haboobs.
Sometimes laughter is the only real alternative to crying — so I’m grateful for artists who help us make that leap. Love their politics, or hate it, that’s up to you. But be proud to live in a country where free speech and creativity mix in ways that give us all pause to consider our own bigotry or bias.
Note: Some performances of “American Pastorela” have been cancelled, so check the New Carpa Theater website before you go, and have a “plan B” just in case you’re downtown for the show and need another option.
Coming up: Art meets economics