Terrence McNally's play Corpus Christi has been captivating audiences and drawing detractors ever since its debut, 14 years ago. By resetting the familiar tale of the life of Jesus in the town of his youth, Corpus Christi, Texas, McNally created a work which meditates on the life, love and passion of Christ, but in a modern and relatable way.
I first met actor James Brandon, who for six years has been playing the character of Jesus (renamed Joshua in the play), when he and Nic Arzen, the play's director, met with my pastor and I about the possibility of bringing their show to Church of the Foothills, our progressive church in the middle of conservative Orange County, California.
In addition to touring, the play has been the inspiration for a documentary as well, Corpus Christi: Playing with Redemption, which is showing at San Francisco's Castro Theatre on Sunday April 29, with performances of the play itself occurring over that weekend.
James took time to speak with me about his life, love, faith and his experience of playing a "Gay Jesus."
Kergan Edwards-Stout: I'll never forget, walking up to unlock the sanctuary on the day of your first performance at our church, and finding a can on the front steps, labeled "Spray Away the Gay" -- which turns out to be remarkably like Glade air freshener. Who knew it was so easy, right? -- Or that you'd even want to?!? But you and your entire team deal with things like that all the time.
James Brandon: I just recently found a picture of you holding that can! But, yes, we deal with that all the time. There is no choice except to embrace one's inner happiness. Some people think, just like that spray, it's as easy as just saying, "I'm not gay anymore" and being gay simply disappears. I always say that it's as easy as wiping the color of your skin off your face.
Edwards-Stout: We also had a bomb threat. How, as actors, do you calm yourselves and be fully present, with all that tumult? Because the play doesn't work if you aren't...
Brandon: Before every single show, since the very first one in 2006, we hold hands and say a "prayer." It's not a prayer to any form of God as much as it is simply a prayer to tune into the divine love within each of us in that moment -- a prayer of connection to each other. It centers us in this show, which is all about love, even when people outside are yelling. In the documentary, there is a scene where we are in our prayer circle and you can actually hear people screaming in the background. None of us even heard a whisper at the time. That's how present we become with each other.
Edwards-Stout: How did you first become involved with this production of Corpus Christi? Was it an open call, auditioning with others?
Brandon: Yes, it was. I had acted in a play with Nic Arnzen, the director, a few years prior and he reached out to his friends to gauge interest in a show he'd been asked to direct. I knew playwright Terrence McNally's work and -- of course -- loved it, so I thought I'd give the script a read. Even on that first read, something about it intrigued me and I knew that I had to be a part of it. Although I originally had auditioned for the role of Judas, which I was clearly not right for, Nic saw something in me that I didn't even see in me at the time -- and here I am, still playing Joshua/Jesus six years later. It was really only meant to be a six-performance run!
Edwards-Stout: With Corpus Christi, there are the obvious and much talked about themes of religion, faith and sexuality. Prior to doing this play, where were you at in your own life, in terms of those themes?
Brandon: I was raised in St. Louis, grew up Catholic, and although I have great respect for the religion and the foundation of love it can instill in a person, it never fully resonated with me. I am very independent, and I never did like being told how to feel about something, or what to believe, or how to love. The religious laws got in the way of my own spiritual beliefs, and, after confirmation, I let go of the church. Five years later, when I was 18, my father passed away, and I caught a glimpse of what spirit actually meant to me. Looking down at his empty shell, I knew that my father was no longer in that body -- and I suddenly realized that he never really was that body. It was a huge transformation for me into understanding spirit. It was the greatest gift my father could have ever given me.
Edwards-Stout: It sounds like a transformational moment.
Brandon: From there, I went on a spiritual journey, exploring various religions and practices, because people's connections to faith and its differing outlets fascinated me. What I continue to learn is that every single aspect is based on one thing -- Love. The laws and dogmatic teachings sometimes skew an otherwise very simple and basic premise, which most of us could easily embrace. Even so, I never fully understood to what extent religion had imprinted deep pain on the gay community until this show came into my life.
Edwards-Stout: In your recent Huffington Post commentary, What Would Jesus Do?, you talk about renouncing your Catholic faith upon deciding it couldn't coincide with your sexuality. Tell me more about that.
Brandon: It wasn't the ultimate deciding factor, as -- quite honestly -- I wasn't in touch with that sexual part of myself at that young age. In retrospect, I can see it was certainly a part of my decision. I was being forced by the church's teachings to love someone, make a family with someone, spend my life with someone I didn't feel a connection to -- and not just to a woman -- but with Jesus as well. The Catholic faith is important to my family, and as much as I wanted to make them happy, I learned pretty quickly that I first needed to make myself happy.
Edwards-Stout: Have your years of performing the role had an effect on your own faith?
Brandon: This play actually brought me back to the faith that I once thought I'd never be a part of again. Upon my first read, the script brought up a lot of the issues I originally had with the Catholic religion -- all those feelings of guilt, pain and regret. It scared me to feel those feelings again, which is exactly why I decided to accept the role.
Edward-Stout: You were confronting your fears--
Brandon: Exactly. Exploring the role has allowed me to understand, from a very intimate perspective, what Jesus might have meant and felt, behind the words.
Edwards-Stout: What do you mean?
Brandon: Well, as an actor, I come from a very simple school of thought: "Say what you mean, and mean what you say." In essence: Speak truth, feel truth, be truth. So to be able to speak such iconic lines, "As you believe, so shall you be," and be in a state of believing that with all of my heart as I speak it -- how can that not impact my life?
Edwards-Stout: So, the character has rubbed off on you?
Brandon: In the beginning, the challenging part for me was taking what I felt onstage and bringing it out into my life. One of the greatest gifts of being able to perform this role has been reconnecting to His divine, abundant and beautiful teachings, in a way that makes sense in my own life. It all begins within.
Edwards-Stout: Adding to that, the stories you hear from others--
Brandon: Meeting people from all over the world who have felt the pain of being ostracized from their faith, who feel connected to it again through this piece of art ... It is inspiring.
Edwards-Stout: The idea of a "Gay Jesus" really is polarizing. Some react with outright hatred. Where do you think such attitudes come from?
Brandon: Fear -- plain and simple. Taken out of context, which it often is -- people think the play is a depiction of Christ having sex with his apostles.
Edwards-Stout: Ooo -- I'd pay to see that show!
Brandon: (laughing) Trust me, I've heard that before...
Edwards-Stout: It seems as if many people feel that humanizing Christ, whether in this play or in other works, like The Last Temptation of Christ, somehow makes him less sacred.
Brandon: That is how some see it, but I couldn't disagree more. First, I always say, before people jump to judgments and conclusions, at least read the play, or see a production of the play, or now our film -- then we can have an actual dialogue about it. I have yet to come across a person who thinks what we're doing is blasphemous, who has actually read the play or see a production.
Edwards-Stout: It's the house of cards analogy--
Brandon: Exactly -- how strong a faith can you really have, if a piece of art threatens your own beliefs?
Edwards-Stout: Have any audience reactions really surprised you?
Brandon: I'll never forget the closing night in our Los Angeles run at the Zephyr Theatre in 2006. At the end of the play, I'm in the moment of crucifixion, and an audience member came running down onto the stage, weeping at my knees and holding me. It stunned me. Another actor gracefully held him and took him offstage...
Edwards-Stout: Wow! What was his story?
Brandon: I talked to him after the show. He was a heterosexual, married man, simply moved by the experience and story. It is amazing -- the power of art.
Edwards-Stout: Playing an iconic and inspirational character such as this, do you ever feel as if you have to be a role model in real life? Does the role carry certain responsibilities?
Brandon: Interesting... If I feel that, it's because I put that on myself. Sometimes, yes, I do feel a certain sense of responsibility, but when I get into that space, I realize that is just my ego talking, and it's a great lesson for me, because no one else is asking that of me.
Edwards-Stout: What, to you, is the ultimate message of the play?
Brandon: Love. We are all connected to that one thread. Even if we disagree on something, we can at least recognize that we each have the capacity to love. Through love all things are possible.
Edwards-Stout: What was your goal with making the documentary?
Brandon: To make the unfamiliar, more familiar. It is our hope that, by making this film, we expand our educational outreach to a larger audience -- one that might not completely understand or accept homosexuality as an equal place at their table of faith.
Edwards-Stout: I'm sure, over the years, you've thought a great deal about who Jesus was. What is your ultimate understanding of him?
Brandon: A perfect line from the script reads, "He loved every one of us. That's all He was about."
Edwards-Stout: And, if you were, indeed, the true "Son of God," what would you whisper in God's ear?
Brandon: "I love you, exactly as you are, right now."
For more information about the sneak-preview screening of the documentary feature Corpus Christi: Playing with Redemption in San Francisco April 29th, or to learn more about the performances of the play Corpus Christi, playing in conjunction around the screening at various San Francisco locations, please click here.
Originally posted on Kergan Edwards-Stout and Bilerico Project.