MS. REBECCA SHEIR
We end this week's traditions show as Evangel Cathedral in Upper Marlboro, Md. It's one of the region's largest black congregations with 2,000 people attending services, any given Sunday. And for the past 21 years, Evangel has produced an annual Christmas play. At first, it was pretty small scale with a cast of 20, these days though the cast numbers more than 200. Emily Friedman visited the final dress rehearsal at the congregation to find out what it takes to make such a massive show go on.
MS. EMILY FRIEDMAN
When I arrive at Evangel Cathedral, musicians are warming up and the cast is standing in a circle, quietly holding hands. After four months of rehearsals, four times a week, it's just about show time.
MS. EMILY FRIEDMAN
The director calls places and 200 people scatter off. They're wearing costumes from all eras, from modern street clothes to Victorian long sleeve dress to biblical sheik with robes and head scarves.
MR. PEYTON GRAY
It has grown from a church putting on a local play to now a national full blown event.
This is Peyton Gray.
I'm one of the elders or associate pastors here Evangel Cathedral and I've been a member here for 26 years.
Performance art is a big part of what this church does, Gray explains. About half of the performers are church members and the other half aren't. The play, he says, helps the church reach out to new potential members and reinforce bonds with current membership.
And what happens is, you have parents who are in it who got married and had kids and their kids are now in it and now their kids are talking about, oh, when I get married, I want to have my kids to be in it. So it creates a continuum.
And since sharing the gospel is so essential to their mission, church leaders are willing to put a lot of money behind it.
We're talking about a pretty substantial budget. It's in the high 100s of thousands. I'll say it that way.
The biggest slice of the budget goes to pay eight nationally known gospel singers, including several Grammy winners. Two or three of the eight sing in each performance alongside the local cast. Tickets for the show run as much as $85 a seat.
A lot of people say, well, you know, that's really a high ticket for a church play. Well, you have to remember, there's a segment in a community of people who want really good Christian entertainment.
Pastor Gray and I head back into the theater, which, for the record, holds 300 more people than the largest theater on Broadway. I take one of the expensive seats up front as the cast begins to tell what is, in all likelihood, the most popular story ever.
Within a moment, after Mary reveals she's already pregnant, it's clear Joseph no longer thinks this is so, so great.
Joseph pushes Mary away and she begins to sing.
Evangel certainly tells a more dramatic storyline than the Gospel, but there are other parts of the show that are quite realistic. For starters, the dozens of live animals in a tent outside waiting for their ques.
Those are the camels that were in Scorpion King. There's three of them.
Hi. Pastor Gray nuzzles up to a camel.
Yeah, hey. What's up? You good?
We walk all the way around the tent to meet the other stars.
You got the donkeys, you got the sheep, you got the horse.
This is like a whole barnyard.
Yeah. As we make our way back inside, I bump into some of the shows youngest cast members. They tell me they plan on being in this show every year of their lives.
CHILDREN FROM SHOW
It was so fun (all talking at once) ...
UNKNOWN FEMALE 1
I just like want to do it for Jesus and have fun.
On a scale of one to 10, how would you guys rate being in the play?
UNKNOWN FEMALE 2
UNKNOWN FEMALE 3
UNKNOWN FEMALE 4
These girls, and all cast members, are required to be at all rehearsals, even if you're an infant.
MR. ANTONIO PIERCE
My name is Antonio Pierce that's son playing baby Jesus, his name is Kiantae (sp?) Pierce. This is my fiancé, Ebony Harrison.
MS. EBONY HARRISON
The mother of baby Jesus.
Kiantae has been playing baby Jesus four times a week for four months, nearly his whole life.
It's draining, but, you know, they need him.
With people coming from as far as Boston and Ohio to see the show, even baby Jesus steps up his game. After all, this isn't your average church play. I'm Emily Friedman.
Final performances are this weekend, so if you'd like more information on the Evangel Cathedral Christmas Celebration, now is the time to visit our website, metroconnection.org.
And that's "Metro Connection" for this week. We heard from WAMU's Sabri Ben-Achour, Emily Friedman, Bryan Russo, Heather Taylor and Jerad Walker along with reporter Marc Adams. Jim Asendio is our news director, our managing producer is Tara Boyle. Jonna McKone and Lauren Landau, Peter Domingos and Heather Taylor produce "Door to Door." Thanks, as always, to the WAMU engineering and digital media teams for their help with production and the "Metro Connection" website.
Our theme song "Every Little Bit Hurts" and our "Door to Door" theme "No Girl" are from the album "Title Tracks" by John Davis and used with permission of the Ernest Jennings record company. You can see a list of all the music we use on our website, metroconnection.org. And while you're there, you can find us on Twitter, you can like us on Facebook, you can listen to individual "Metro Connection" stories and if you'd like to listen to the whole show, you can click the podcast link up at the top of the page.
We hope you can join us next week when we pile our plates with some culinary classics. We'll chew on a bunch of our favorite food stories from the past year on everything from Kimchi to gourmet pop-tarts. And we'll meet the local chef who cooks with some of the world's most searingly hot peppers.
MR. TOM ELDER
You know, when you're first starting off, you do your habanera and you're chopping these things and it's all great. And then, all of a sudden, you wipe your eye, you're like, what the heck? And that's when you start learning about peppers.
I'm Rebecca Sheir and thanks for listening to "Metro Connection," a production of WAMU 88.5 news.
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