New folk musical: The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph’s Baby

This December hundreds of churches around the world will no doubt bring to life onstage the unusual tale of Mary and Joseph’s baby. Most of the characters will be played by little kids dressed up in robes and star-tinsel garlands, and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is sure to make the song list. A beloved tradition—but one that has perhaps made Jesus’s birth too familiar to us, rendered it not unusual or shocking at all.

The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph's Baby poster

Into this milieu comes Don Chaffer and Chris Cragin-Day’s new musical, The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph’s Baby, to shake things up. Running December 8–18 at River and Rail Theatre in Knoxville, Tennessee, the play retells Matthew and Luke’s nativity accounts with a modern imagination, focusing on the hopes and fears of the young couple chosen to bear God into the world. My husband and I attended its world premiere this August at the New York International Fringe Festival, produced by Firebone Theatre, and loved it. (We’re still singing “Hel-looo! Hel-looo!” to each other—the catchy angelic greeting.) Far from the tired, pious storytelling of many a Christian-penned pageant, The Unusual Tale bursts with energy and even surprises, inviting believers and nonbelievers alike to consider anew the meaning of the Incarnation.

The show has a cast of four: Mary, Joseph, and two multirole characters (one male, one female). Mary and Joseph are humanized and given dimension. They are at times angry, scared, hurt, frustrated, confused, happy, tired, skeptical, or insistent. Their personalities sometimes clash—Mary is plucky and passionate and refuses to accept the way things are, whereas Joseph is mostly content and prefers to play it safe. When they are confronted with the outrageous news that Mary is to give birth to the son of God, they are forced to exercise a degree of trust in God and in each other that they had not been required to previously, and it doesn’t come easy. But they grow together into God’s plan in their own different ways as they learn more and more how to do the work they’ve been called to.

One of the most enthralling possibilities that the play opens up is that the Incarnation was triggered not just by God’s feeling that “now’s the time” or by some generic devoutness on the part of Mary but by a spoken vow of hers. Fed up with how the Roman authorities have been roughing up her fiancé at work, Chaffer and Cragin-Day’s Mary starts sermonizing about how God raised up stuttering Moses to deliver their people from slavery in Egypt, and little ole David to conquer a Philistine giant, and why couldn’t he do the same today?

“You know what I think? I think God is just waiting for someone to step up and say, ‘I’ll do it. Choose me.’ Like David did. So you know what I’m gonna do?” Mary says, stepping onto a crate, despite Joseph’s objections.

“I’ll do it, God. I’ll slay Goliath. I am available and willing.”

“One of these days, God’s gonna call your bluff,” Joseph says.

“I’m not bluffing.”  

In the Letter from the Authors printed inside the FringeNYC program, Chaffer and Cragin-Day write,

In dramatic structure, the protagonist’s want determines the plot. But we aren’t used to considering the Christmas story from this perspective. This over-told story is always shared from an omniscient perspective. God’s perspective. Mary and Joseph are pawns. But what if dramatic structure contains inherent truth about man’s relationship to the divine? What if the incarnation did indeed result from something Mary wanted deeply?

Mary’s first song is “I Want to Be Delivered”; you might call it Mary’s Lament. In it she describes her people’s present as a “wilderness of shame” through which they’re wandering. She expresses her desire to be set free from Roman rule, invoking God’s promises but admitting that they seem empty to her sometimes:

If you won’t deliver us, let us leave
If you choose another people
And you’re moving on
Just save us all the trouble
Of trying to believe
And let your people go

She wonders whether God’s favor still rests on Israel, whether God is still with them—at which point the angel comes whooshing in, responding with special emphasis (a clever twist on Luke), “You are favored. God is with you.” The angel then announces the coming of Jesus, whose name means “God delivers us.” Deliverance is a key theme throughout the play.

Angelic appearances in dramatic works often make me cringe because of how hackneyed they are. But The Unusual Tale uses a fresh approach, making the angel a large, sheeted rod puppet with a wizened, sexless face. Instead of communicating in deep echoes or classical soprano, he/she/it sings a warm, folksy melody that, like the angel’s form, sways. The moment of conception, or “overshadowing” (Luke 1:35), likewise receives fresh treatment—for one, it’s more emphatic than is traditional, and its staging reinforces the “wind” and “breath” aspects of pneuma, Spirit.

"Herod's Way" (The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph's Baby)
“Bethlehem isn’t the little town it used to be.” Innkeepers Avagail (Katherine George) and Micha (Andrew Nielson) try to convince Mary (Ava McCoy) and Joseph (Michael Castillejos) to get out of “Herod’s Way” and accept their offer of a shed to stay in. Photo courtesy of Chris Cragin-Day, from the FringeNYC production, August 2016.

Admirably, the authors demonstrate both theological and artistic sensibility—neither compromises the other. God is taken at his word in scripture, but the story is cracked wide open and explored from new angles. Creative license brings us humor, especially through the likes of invented characters like Mary’s clueless cousin, Benjamin, who lets slip to Joseph that Mary’s pregnant, and Naphtali, a shepherd who arrives early at the birth and tries to help calm Joseph’s nerves. It also expands the profiles of the characters we thought we knew already, giving them interiority and opportunities to interact with one another and so show their true colors.

Elizabeth’s character is particularly endearing. I feel that I know her better now because of this play. The feminine bond she shares with Mary, especially as they knead dough together and discuss their pregnancies, and the strength they give each other were highlights for me. Elizabeth’s monologue about her marriage to Zechariah and the pain of barrenness cut me just where it was supposed to. We know that Mary admires Elizabeth because she rehashes this monologue at the end of the play, adapting it to her own circumstance and using it to uplift Joseph during a time of crisis and point him back to God just as Elizabeth had for her. This interweaving of the two birth stories that give rise to the Magnificat (a song that the authors chose to distribute across scenes rather than concentrate it in the one) is a brilliant device that helps us see how God’s grace spreads wider than just Mary.

Joseph, too, is developed as an emotionally complex character. He’s probably the most relatable one in the show, by self-admission “just a regular, average guy.” And he’s close in age to Mary, contrary to later legends that he was an old man at the time of his betrothal. In the song “My Part of the Story,” Joseph accepts his role as sidekick to Mary (“I’m not tryin’ to compete, I’m just happy to get a seat”) but wonders what use he’ll be, confessing,

. . . I can’t figure out why
You might need
The kind of a guy who, try as he might,
Can’t even see
What his part of the story might be

The authors give us further insight into Joseph’s anxieties by embellishing the dream sequences recorded in the Bible, and by adding one new one—a nightmare, really.

Music is obviously key to the success of any musical, and the twenty original songs by Don Chaffer (of the husband-wife duo Waterdeep) are masterful, an exciting variety of personalities and moods. The comedic characters’ songs are written in a flashier, “Broadway” style, whereas the introspective songs are more pared down and lyric-forward, and the closing group number is anthemic. Not only does Chaffer demonstrate his skill as a songwriter for theater, he also proves himself a thoughtful interpreter of scripture.

Song list:

  1. “Just a Jew”
  2. “I Want to Be Delivered”
  3. “Hello, Mary”
  4. “I Don’t Know That She Wants What I Want”
  5. “Eggplant Casserole”
  6. “Joseph’s Never Gonna Believe Me”
  7. “Magnificat”
  8. “Hello, Joseph” (Reprise)
  9. “Herod’s Way”
  10. “My Part of the Story”
  11. “The Space Between”
  12. “Birthing Checklist for Fathers and/or Sheep”
  13. “Magnificat” (Reprise)
  14. “Sleepy Deepy, Poopy Sheepy”
  15. “Why Does God Have to Look So Human?”
  16. “Get Out of Herod’s Way” (Reprise)
  17. “No, Just Go” (Reprise)
  18. “Just the Messenger”
  19. “Whose Baby Is He?”
  20. “Walk Through the Sea on Dry Land”

My favorite song from the show is “Why Does God Have to Look So Human?” In it Mary puzzles over how “so of the earth, and so not from above” Jesus looks and acts, and worries that she and Joseph will start believing that he’s just a normal baby, and that over time their memory of the angels will fade and eventually disappear. It’s a beautiful song that marvels at the paradox of the Incarnation:

It makes me wonder how deliverance
Could come from such a fragile place
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
He was supposed to look like lightning
Instead he looks like his mother
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I guess I thought he’d be half made of God
And only half made up of stuff like you and me
But he’s so much baby
The other part is hard to see

In the penultimate song, “Whose Baby Is He?,” Mary tries to make sense of God’s plan to work through poverty and scandal and fallibility in his choice of parents for Jesus. Listen to the full song performed by Lori Chaffer, provided courtesy of the authors, in the player below:

 

Mary and Joseph map the tale of their ancestors’ crossing the Red Sea onto their own experience in the finale, “Walk Through the Sea on Dry Land,” looking to it as a lesson in faith: they need to “step into the place where / the water’s piled high on both sides” and trust that the walls won’t crash in on them.

I wholeheartedly commend to you The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph’s Baby. It avoids the two traps laid out any time a sacred story is retold: underspiritualization and overspiritualization. Taking religious faith as something that is admirable and relevant and vitalizing but difficult and fraught, the play presents the nativity in a way that is reverent but not stilted, immersing us into the sociopolitical and interpersonal contexts into which Jesus was born. There is some profanity (six swear words) and a few veiled references to sex (between husband and wife), but otherwise the play is appropriate for all ages. It invites you to wonder and laugh in equal measure, and to add a new set of songs to your Christmas playlist.


Click here to purchase tickets for the play’s December run at River and Rail Theatre in Knoxville. At the time of this writing, the available dates are December 9, 10, 11, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 18, with a cost range of $18–$25.

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