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Southern Crescent children preparing to stage ‘The Best Christmas Pageant Ever’

Southern Crescent kids preparing to stage holiday show

Emily Gawell displays some of the crassness of her character, Imogene Herdman, during a rehearsal of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” Sunday. The Front Porch Players is producing the play, which will premiere Nov. 15. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)

Emily Gawell displays some of the crassness of her character, Imogene Herdman, during a rehearsal of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” Sunday. The Front Porch Players is producing the play, which will premiere Nov. 15. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)

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Julia Gawell, in character as Gladys Herdman, chases a “shepherd” across the “desert” during a rehearsal of the Nativity play scene from the Front Porch Players production of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” Sunday. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)

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Keith Larson, in character as Bob Bradley, talks to his “son,” who is played by William Shiflett, during a rehearsal of the Front Porch Players’ production of the “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” Sunday. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)

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Sierra McElhannon, left, and Katie Johnson share a scene during a rehearsal of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” Sunday. McElhannon and Johnson play Alice Wendleken and Beth Bradley, respectively. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)

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The Herdman children are the main characters in the play, “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.” The Front Porch players are using more than half a dozen Southern Crescent children to portray the clan in their upcoming production of the play. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)

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Emily Gawell cradles a doll as she portrays Imogene Herdman, who is playing the Virgin Mary in the play-within-a-play in “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.” (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)

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Jennifer Vanegas places a frantic call to a neighbor in character as “Mrs. Slocumb” during a rehearsal of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” Sunday. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)

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Tracy Larson, left, and Jennifer Vanegas chat in character as Mrs. McCarthy and Mrs. Slocumb, respectively, during one of the final scenes of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.” (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)

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Jenny Johnson, in character as Grace Bradley, takes names for roles in a Nativity play in “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.” (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)

JONESBORO — Children from Henry and Clayton counties are going to turn the traditional Christmas Nativity story on its head this month.

Joseph and Mary will fight over the baby Jesus. The young girl playing Mary will also declare that the innkeeper should be reported to a social worker for not providing her with a room and a bed where she could “give birth” to Jesus.

The shepherds will run from the overly excited Angel of the Lord who is chasing them from their flocks. Another angel will lose her halo. One of the Three Wise Men will present Jesus with a ham.

And there will be hints — sometimes subtle and other times shining like a neon sign — that some of the children interpret the Nativity as a solemn spy thriller.

That is, of course, how the Nativity is treated when it’s taken over by six rambunctious siblings in the play adaptation of Barbara Robinson’s book, “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.” Director Karen Ferrell-White said the kids have dived into the material and embraced it.

“They’ve worked extremely hard on this,” Ferrell-White said. “They’ve got those lines down pat and I had one of the best first off-book rehearsals of my career with these guys.

The play will be performed by the Front Porch Players for six dates later this month, starting Nov. 15 at First Presbyterian Church of Jonesboro, 1842 Lake Jodeco Road. The show’s other dates are Nov. 16-17 and Nov. 22-24.

The show focuses on a community getting ready to hold its church’s annual Christmas pageant. The centerpiece of the pageant is a performance of the Nativity play by the community’s children. Parents became frightened when the Herdman children, known around town as troublemakers, signed up to be in the play.

The Herdman kids have never heard the Nativity story before and their spirited interpretation is something the community is not accustomed to.

For many of the children, this is their first stage experience outside of school or camps, said Ferrell-White. McDonough youth Anna Seelhammer and Morrow youth Emily Gawell are two such cases. They are rotating the roles of the lead role of Imogene Herdman and the secondary role of an angel each night throughout the show’s run.

Both have participated in Arts Clayton annual summer camp productions in the past, but they are still nervous about the upcoming show.

“Sometimes, I get nervous because I don’t think I’ll learn my lines by opening night,” said Gawell, who will play Imogene first.

“I’m scared of that,” Seelhammer added. “That’s why I’m glad she’s playing Imogene on opening night. I don’t want to play her that night, because I’m afraid I’d miss my lines because of the pressure.”

But some of the children in the play have some experience at stage work and aren’t as nervous. Katie Johnson plays the narrator and Beth Bradley in the play. This isn’t Johnson’s first experience with a major role, or with The Front Porch Players.

Johnson played Willy Wonka in Arts Clayton’s summer camp production of “Charlie and Chocolate Factory” this past summer, and she was in the Front Porch Players’ production of “Moonshine and Magnolias” before that. She said the kids-heavy cast makes “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” an enjoyable experience.

“We have so many kids interacting with each other that it’s fun because of all of the personalities and energy we have,” said Johnson.

In addition to Seelhammer, Gawell and Johnson, the rest of the cast includes: Jacob Vanegas, Tyler Todd, Tommy Sullivan, DeAndre Horner, Megan McKneely; Julia Gawell, William Shiflett, Keith Larson, Jenny Johnson, Tracy Larson, Jennifer Vanegas, Floree Campbell, Mary Anne Brannon, Jessica Moore, Matthew Goodrum, Maddie McKneely, Noah Seelhammer, Sierra McElhannon, Candace Todd, Joe Wiley, Tyrone McCree, Alex Markovich, Erika Fernandes, Elisa Louis, Isabelle Louis, MaKayla McKinney, Floree Campbell, Nannette Dooley, Joe Wiley, Pat Womack, Dave Womack, Gary Wofford, Anna Harland, Mike Fox, Julie Judy, Melissa Ham.

Reserved seating is $15 for adults, $12 for seniors over 55 and $10 for children under 12. General admission is $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and $8 for children. Tickets can be purchased at the door or through thefrontporchplayers.com. There is a 75 cent service charge for buying tickets online, but anyone wishing to see the show is encouraged to buy tickets online to guarantee a seat.

The show will be performed at 8 p.m. Nov. 15-16 and Nov. 22-23. It will be performed at 2:30 p.m. Nov. 17 and Nov. 24.