Dramatic reading brings Spanish, English-speaking congregations closer

August 9, 2007

A dredge -- a large, hoary implement of rusted steel teeth and netting used to "harrow" crabs out of the depths of Chesapeake Bay -- sits at the base of the large pulpit just below the chancel steps of St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in the heart of the Columbia Heights section of Washington, D.C. To the right and left stand other implements of crabbing: life vests, nets, boots, rain slickers, crab pot markers and the like.

The audience for a dramatic reading of CRABS ALIVE! arrives, composed of St. Stephen's English-speaking parishioners, members of the Spanish-speaking congregation of Misa Alegria (a mission of St. Stephen's), theater enthusiasts from around the metropolitan Washington area and neighborhood people from various walks of life.

At performance time, the sanctuary lights come up and the first of two actors, Greg Coale, steps to the lectern on the left side of the pulpit. Actor Lizet Abrico, steps to a lectern on the audience's right side of the pulpit.

The story is about a "quiet" Saturday," Holy Saturday, a little-remarked-upon day of the Christian calendar. The story of the Harrowing of Hell is enacted using the metaphor of crabbing along the Chesapeake Bay. This scene of a struggling -- and some say dying -- industry allows the story to comment briefly on contemporary issues such as the role of immigrants in helping the industry survive.

But the main thread of the story is about the lost souls in hell and how the coming of a savior brings them back to life. That is the mission of Jovita, a strange Latina visitor from the "upper world." Played by Misa Alegria member Abrico, Jovita steps out of the mist and onto the shores of the Chesapeake, where she confronts Charlie, captain of a Chesapeake skipjack, played by Coale, a Washington/Baltimore veteran actor.

An unusual model
St. Stephen's, known for its years of social action and for its current operation of Loaves and Fishes, one of the largest food kitchens to feed the hungry in the metropolitan area, is an unusual urban Episcopal parish. Located in the heart of a racially and culturally mixed neighborhood, the church depends on a mutual ministry model that relies upon lay and nonstipendiary adjunct clergy for leadership.

Washington Bishop John Chane is rector of St. Stephen's. The Rev. Frank Dunn is priest-in-charge.

"The location, the history and the special organization of St. Stephen's -- as well as the presence of members of Misa Alegria -- made St. Stephen's the ideal venue for the premier dramatic reading of my play CRAB'S ALIVE!," said Russ Barnes, author and producer of the reading. "It was a stunning moment when Lizet Abrico stepped onto the stage to play Jovita, the feminine and Latina savior and harrower of hell."

The Rev. Sarabeth Goodwin provides leadership to Misa Alegria. Gay Gellhorn is director of the St. Stephen's Arts Collaborative, which promotes the telling of the gospel message via visual and performing arts.

Barnes said he hoped to make it possible to bring entertaining plays with a gospel message to churches desiring a new kind of community outreach and to give them a fund-raising vehicle.

"In the case of the performance of CRABS ALIVE! at St. Stephen's, we found willing participants among the merchants of Columbia Heights, who wanted to support the church and participate in the larger life of the neighborhood community," Barnes said, noting local merchants contributed hundreds of dollars to the event.