As I watched the performance of The IN Series’ most recent offering, I thought about starting my review with a warning: “Don’t go to see L’Enfance du Christ unless you want to be transformed.” And that made me think, “Well, why do we go to see theater – some of us repeatedly – if we don’t want to be transformed?” One thing is certain. In its presentation and in its text, L’Enfance du Christ attempts to take its audience on a journey of transformation.
This piece is an oratorio. An oratorio is usually presented in static, concert form. Here, it is – pointedly – staged (You could say “ritualized”) in the sanctuary of Foundry United Methodist Church, a place where people are used to going when they are in crisis and they know something in their life needs to change.
In fact, for this production, the audience’s journey of transformation begins when you enter this place of worship. The audience can choose from a variety of options as to where on the continuum of participation in this production they want to be. You can choose to be seated at the mourner’s bench, where you are surrounded by the action and the sound and where you will later be joined by Herod in full ashes-and-sackcloth mode. If you arrive early you can go so far as to actually become part of the staging by following appointed guides, very much in the tradition of pilgrims walking in the steps of an esteemed spiritual guide, or walking a labyrinth. Or you can take the more conventional relationship of audience to performer.
L’Enfance du Christ retells a story of immigrants fleeing an imminent terror: the threat of having their baby killed by the state. We know this story as The Great Migration of formerly enslaved people of African heritage seeking escape from the lynchings of the South of the United States. We know this story as United States Army implementing genocide on the Indigenous Americans. This production chooses to tell the story through the current terror we are witnessing being perpetrated, in this very city, in our name as American citizens, of the ICE raids on the homes and jobs of Latino “illegal immigrants” to this country.
L’Enfance du Christ closes December 15, 2019. Details and tickets
L’Enfance du Christ (The Childhood of Christ) is the third presentation in the first season that is totally under the guidance of artistic director Timothy Nelson. This production is dazzling. The architecture of Foundry United Methodist Church is a good thing for this musical extravaganza, helping the vocals soar and expand and giving the vibrations of the stringed instruments an unexpected layering. Color, sound and light are everywhere you look. Soaring into the dome of the ceiling, splashing up the four corners of the sanctuary, billowing like clouds from the balcony.
And the singing – from everyone – is impeccable. The production is anchored by the performances of Ian McEuen (Narrator), Kerry Wilkerson (Herod/Father), Elizabeth Mondragon (Mary) and Jarrod Lee (Joseph). Mr. Lee’s Joseph is charming in his dedication to and affection for his wife and his voice is a solid, effortless-sounding presence no matter where he is in the performance space. Mr. McEuen’s Narrator deftly and compassionately guides us through the events of the narrative and helps us to process the meaning in the story. Kerry Wilkerson’s transformation from the conflicted Herod to the embracing and nurturing Father is welome and comforting. Elizabeth Mondragon is touching and courageous as Mary. Teresa Ferrara, Joseph Kaz, Eliot Matheny and Elise Christina Jenkins are the reliable Guides that help maintain the shape of the narrative and the focus of the audience/participants. The Chorus is like the articulation of the audience/congregation/community’s interior ‘small voice’ of joy, despair and hope in the face of terror.
Music Director and Conductor Stanley Thurston’s realization of the musical possibilities of this production are something to be grateful for.
I wonder if this production is representative of the direction the company will be taking under Mr. Nelson. That it is dazzling in its artistry bears repeating. It is also eccentric in the root sense of that word. It is eccentric in that it shifts the center of the focus of a work that is solidly in the western canon away from its obsession with seeing everything it touches through an exclusionary white lens. This obsession with seeing everything through an exclusionary white lens is so overwhelming that it unblushingly paints historic gods in its own image of whiteness and claims ownership over them. We saw In Series make this shift earlier this season in Stormy Weather in which the Africans Sycorax, Caliban and Billie Holiday were allowed space to be present in our theatrical universe. And The IN Series seems to be continuing this approach with this production of L’Enfance du Christ.
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As L’Enfance du Christ approaches its final moments, the audience is gently invited to claim its place in the drama and accept the embrace of the story, by standing as they continue to watch, listen and bear witness to the final moments of this family’s and this community’s journey.
I loved this show for its insistence on staging instead of simply concertizing and for the way it encourages the audience to be more than passive observers of the current political and moral challenges we are facing. Not everyone enjoys being asked to be so alert when they go to see a show. This way of exploring the place of theater in the lives of its audience and the role of the audience in the very reason for theater being produced in the first place, is invaluable and unusual. And it is worth your time to see it.
L’Enfance du Christ by Hector Berlioz . Directed by Steven Scott Mazzola and Timothy Nelson . Music Director: Stanley Thurston. Featuring Kerry Wilkerson, Elizabeth Mondragon, Jarrod Lee, Ian McEuen and the choir of Foundry United Methodist Church . Produced by In Series . Reviewed by Gregory Ford.