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THEATER

Spreading Traditions of La Navidad

Among the seasonal offerings in the Latino community, 'La Posada Magica' puts a modern spin on a Christmas pageant.

December 22, 1996|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

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."

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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."

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