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Thursday, December 23, 2010

All ye faithful at CAST

Posted By on Thu, Dec 23, 2010 at 11:01 AM

At the end of its fifth annual mini-season, The Birth: A Reflective Celebration of the Coming of Christ and the Starving Artist Productions people who bring it to us tacked on an extra celebration. After the 47-minute ragout of biblical readings, music, dance, and three monologues by Frederick Buechner adapted for the stage and performed by Nathan Rouse, there was an audience talkback with Rouse and his cast that probably lasted longer than the show. Then came the opportunity to hear more music from Sarah DeShields, who wrote two of the songs in The Birth, “Shepherd’s Song” and “Mary.”

So there she was, behind the microphone at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre, her huge baby bump visible to the back row, flanked by her husband and the cellist who completed their trio, telling us how daunting it was to be asked to write a song we were to take as the words and heart of the Virgin Mary. An amazingly resonant moment, since Mary is credited with carrying a rather awesome burden of her own when she was pregnant.

The intro probably had a lot to do with it, but the song sounded far more powerful from the lips of the composer. As a performer, the Scottish-born DeShields is a luminosity in her own right. But it’s probable that the light of Rouse’s adaptation was shining on her as she penned the first three couplets of “Mary”:

Joseph’s hands, they shook as he laid down the cup of wine

Dark as blood and rich as grace, I would be his and he’d be mine

He didn’t know that when the shame settled in

that he would be the one to name the King of Kings

and the cloth that bound our hands in union as we wed

were the same that bound our God as he lay in our straw bed

My own most illuminating moment at the five-year celebration event came at the end of DeShields’ hour-long concert when she and the audience sang “Come All Ye Faithful.” Both Sue and I have a moderate tolerance for Christmas carols in their proper season, but singing them is something my wife will not do. We’re both Jewish, but I’m a little more flexible about singing the more secular Christmas songs like “Silver Bells,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and Nat “King” Cole’s ever-roasting chestnuts. But the Old Testament Decalogue is an unyielding barrier when it comes to singing the worshipful words of “Silent Night,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” or “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

So it wasn’t unusual that I was listening to “Come All Ye Faithful.” What was unusual was how forcefully the words brought home for me the uniqueness, the appeal, and the genius of Christianity. You guys worship a baby! You make a big deal over kings and sages who trudge across deserts and continents with baby gifts! All other religions revere the powerful, the mysterious, the wise, and the righteous forces of the universe – often inscrutable, demanding studs and goddesses who don’t put on deodorant before going to work and laying down the law.

Don’t get me wrong. Fear and guilt are both great reasons to bow down to a higher power. Useful arrows for religion to have in its quiver. But when it comes to worship, what’s more adorable than a baby?


The baby Jesus is the polar opposite of the omnipotent, invisible God who rules the Old Testament of the Jews. Nothing could be more appealingly weak, vulnerable, and gentle to the touch. Only Mary, lovingly cradling the newborn, cuing the rest of the world with her adoration, is nearly as adorable. Yes, the marvel of creation is aglow in the manger – with the spark of the divine.

Surely, it was the reflective energy of The Birth that triggered my own reflections. My thanks, then, and best wishes for 2011 as Starving Artists seeks to offer us more. Good Christians and renegades like me can expect a fuller season as they prepare to bring us the world premiere of Lion Country, a stage adaptation of the first book in Buechner’s Bebb tetralogy, and the Charlotte premiere of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer.

We’ll let you know when the actual dates are finalized.

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