FOOTLIGHTS IN THE FOOTHILLS
Amateur Theatre of Las Vegas and Fort Union, New Mexico, 1871–1899
It is night, or nearly night. Grey winter light, candleglow, lanterns, and torches cast long shadows across the snow and frozen mud. The air is crystal with dew. Horses stamp their hooves and blow steam, a few goats forage, and small groups of shawled and hooded people approach la casa de corte, a low adobe building on the north rim of la plaza de Nuestra Señora de Dolores de Las Vegas. The people arrive in wagons and carts, on horseback, and on foot. They enter the venerable building, which usually houses clerks and judges, and sit on the wooden benches. The air is thick with smoke and dust and the scent of burning piñon logs.
It is not a church, but all on the benches show a reverence for what is to come, for they are the audience.
Some people whisper—quieting children, greeting distant neighbors. Most rest their gazes ahead at the white-washed wall yellowed by candle flame, the honorable dais, and the newly added wooden platform holding a small bench and a roughhewn cradle stuffed with bits of straw. This is the set.
To one side of the stage, a group of people gathers. Ten figures in homespun robes of various shades of white and grasping tall staffs decorated with strips of colored cloth, a woman wearing a pale blue shawl and simple gown, a girl posing in white dress and veil, a boy fidgeting under his rough cloak that puddles around him on the smooth earthen floor, and one masked figure draped in black engage in animated conversation. For these are the actors.
The room fills to its capacity. Audience members shift and readjust to accommodate new comers. A baby murmurs, a woman hums softly. The shuffling of boots slows as people fill the aisles and line the side walls. The boy in the oversized robe detaches himself from the group of actors and runs to close the doors. The people watch as he weaves his way among them, crosses to the far corner, pokes the fireplace flames, and quickly rejoins the costumed group.
The actors huddle and nod, then disperse and take up positions within the set. The woman in the blue shawl, cradling a small blanketed form, sits on the bench behind the crib and bows her head. A man dressed in brown rough trousers and cloak takes his position beside her and strikes a reverent pose. The figure in black fades to the rear of the platform as The Shepherds take center stage, form two rows, and turn to face one another. The candlelight flickers. The crowd hushes to silence.
One Shepherd turns and approaches the audience. He pauses at the edge of the stage, then chants the expected greeting.
Lla es tiempo de ver
A la virgen Maria
Y al Niño en Belen.
And the play begins.