Although "Nutcrackers" and "Christmas Carols" have dominated the seasonal stage for years, they're no longer the only Christmas shows in town. Particularly here in Southern California, where multiculturalism continues to influence programming at venues both mainstream and community-specific, these venerable warhorses are facing increased competition from other seasonal traditions.
Holiday ticket buyers previously forced to choose between Scrooge and Sugarplums now have a third option: La Posada, a processional drama re-creating Joseph and Mary's search for lodging. No longer limited to celebration primarily within the Latino community, this pageant play is making its mark on Los Angeles' performing arts scene.
Once found in neighborhood streets in Mexico and throughout the southwestern United States, La Posada more recently has been presented as a roving drama confined to church grounds. Now the tradition is also being used as the basis of a show for an audience, whether as part of a play or on a bill of folkloric art.
This year, for example, two major interpretations of La Posada can be seen on Southland stages. Playwright Octavio Solis and musician Marcos Loya's "La Posada Magica" continues at South Coast Repertory through Christmas Eve. And later this week, L.A. County and the UCLA Center for the Performing Arts will present holiday shows that include another version of the ritual pageantry of La Posada, featuring performances by Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano, Ballet Folklorico Ollin and Conjunto Macuilxochitl.
La Posada is not, however, the only seasonal theater tradition in the Latino community. Drawing on other religious scenarios and folk legends, El Teatro Campesino has presented Luis Valdez's "La Pastorela" and "La Virgen del Tepeyac" in San Juan Bautista annually for years. Here in L.A., the Latino Theatre Company's staging of "La Virgen del Tepeyac" will have its final performance, in Spanish, tonight at St. Alphonsus Church.
La Posada, however, is arguably the most well traveled of the Latino theatrical traditions of the season. It's also the one most often reinterpreted today--perhaps because it translates so readily to a secular context.
The ritual of La Posada also bears a simple message that's relevant for a contemporary audience. "It has to do less with the loss of tradition and faith than loss of community," says playwright Solis. "These people [in the posada] represent the community.
"The audience are members of the community too, implicit in this from the beginning," he continues. "They've been on the journey [with the posada] too. In my play [for example], they're trying to teach [the protagonist] how the community can be key to dealing with very personal problems like loss."
That, says Solis, is a lesson that transcends the bounds of culture and religion. It speaks to the seasonal alienation felt by Latinos and non-Latinos alike.
"Christmas is a tough time," the playwright says. "Christmas is a time of enforced happiness. It's an economic holiday, all about marketing and selling. It's also a time of forced family feelings. People get together for all the wrong reasons.
"Imagine how hard it is when there's a breakup or death or sickness in the family, or when you don't have any money to buy your kids presents," he continues. "If [the celebrating] isn't connected to real reasons why you should be happy, there's a lot of misery. Kids are cynical about [traditions such as La Posada] only because they're taking their cues from their parents' generation."
With roots in both medieval liturgical drama and more modern Mexican processional celebrations, La Posada is remembered by members of older generations as a community event that took place in the neighborhood streets on the nine nights preceding Christmas.
"We would go house to house [on] the nights before Christmas, singing songs, re-creating what happened [on the pilgrimage to Bethlehem]," recalls the Jalisco, Mexico-born Nati Cano, director of Fiesta Navidad, which includes a version of La Posada.
"I remember all the kids getting together with the pin~atas [at the end of the trek]," he continues. "What I remember from those days, I try to create on the stage. It's a pageant, combining music, dances."
Solis, who was raised in El Paso, Texas, had an experience far different from Cano's. "My family never went on posadas," says Solis, who now lives in San Francisco. "We had Christmas trees and watched Charlie Brown specials, but no [posadas]."
Solis' first close encounter of the posada kind happened when he was 12 years old. "We heard them singing down the block," he recalls. "They came down the middle of the street, making traffic wait.
"They would designate a certain door and stop," he says. "They would stop and ask, in a symbolic way, 'Will you give us shelter?' It's almost like reading from a script. [The people in the house] don't have shelter [to offer], but they do offer hot chocolate, breads or cookies. It was like a moving play."
His response at the time was one of trepidation. "I was a little afraid of them," Solis says. "They [posadas] are somewhat formal, not like a bunch of people walking around singing Christmas carols. People take these very seriously."
Still, that first posada sighting was to serve Solis well. In 1993, South Coast Repertory commissioned the playwright and musician Marcus Loya to create a Christmas play. The project was backed by a $30,000 grant from the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund.
SCR didn't specifically ask for a posada play, but that seemed, to Solis, to be the obvious choice. "They asked me to do a Christmas play," he says. "But since [Loya was also commissioned], I knew this was going to be a play that had music. And that told me a lot about the kind of play it was going to be."
Naturally, Solis thought back to when he was 12. "I remembered that first posada that I had seen as a child," he says. "They're very stirring. I also had to do some additional research by talking to my mother and father."
But Solis did not want to do a straight re-creation of La Posada; instead, he uses the pageant as a play within a play.
The story of "La Posada Magica" is that of a girl named Gracie who has recently suffered the loss of her baby brother. Down and disillusioned, she wants no part of holiday festivities.
The play shows what happens when a neighborhood posada comes by the young heroine's house. "The posada comes to her, they light a candle in her name," Solis says. "She joins the posada, but she doesn't want [to make] any gifts to God that night."
The lighting of the candles, a familiar component of La Posada enactments, is also a key image in the play. "Gracie doesn't want her candle lit," says Solis, who also directed the play. "She's angry at God, so she proceeds to blow out all the candles of the posada.
"Her journey is a journey toward darkness," he says. "Then, at the end of first act, she's blown out the last candle and she's all alone. There she confronts the demons of her own anger."
The transformation that Gracie undergoes during the course of the second act parallels the journey Solis imagines audience members may take. "She thinks it's all corny, silly and stupid, so she undermines the posada," he explains. "She doesn't realize the importance of the tradition. But when push comes to shove, she discovers the real meaning, if you will, of Christmas."
* "La Virgen del Tepeyac," Latino Theatre Company, St. Alphonsus Church, 532 S. Atlantic Blvd. Today only, 8 p.m. $16. (213) 223-6403.
"La Posada Magica," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Today, 12:30 and 4:30 p.m.; Monday, 8 p.m.; Tuesday, 12:30 and 4:30 p.m. $10 - $25. (714) 957-4033.
L.A. County Holiday Celebration, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, L.A. Music Center, 135 S. Grand Ave. Tuesday, 3-9 p.m. (Latino finale begins at 8 p.m.). Free. (213) 974-1396.
Fiesta Navidad, Veterans Wadsworth Theater, V.A. Grounds, Brentwood. Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m. $25-$28. (310) UCLA-ART.