In 1998 when Terrence McNally wrote a play about a young gay Jesus, you might have thought the world was coming to an end. (You still might actually.) A few words of misinformation about the piece were written before it even opened, and suddenly a firestorm of protests filled the streets. What began as a peaceful exploration in rehearsals ended with actors and crew walking through metal detectors, bomb sniffing dogs, and throes of violent screaming. A fatwah was issued on the playwright's life and the term "controversy" became synonymous with Corpus Christi.
This was all because of a play.
On one hand I read that sentence and think "Geez people, it's only a play. Don't take it so seriously." On the other hand I read it as "Hell yes, it's only a play and we've got something to say." Therein lies the beautiful yin and yang of theatre, and why we are drawn to perform or watch it in the first place. Since ancient times, theatre is used as a tool for teaching, for igniting conversation, and for being a catalyst of personal growth. And if one play can tackle all three, there is great potential for it to make a lasting impact on society.
This is the gift of Corpus Christi.
When Terrence first wrote the piece, the conversations we are having now were only just beginning: from marriage equality to faith-based equality, the play brought a voice to a community that was struggling to find its inclusion in society. But these conversations weren't allowed to be heard at the time. Instead, people heard "gay Jesus" and shut it down, without ever having read or seen it. When a simple concept for a piece of theatre has such intense reaction, wouldn't you first think it would be revered rather than blasphemed? And in asking that question, which I've done a lot over the past eight years since we revived the show, I wonder if perhaps that is the very question Jesus asked His followers. If a belief you hold so tightly is thrown that much in question by a play, then maybe it's time to look at your own beliefs within, rather than focus all your energies on what instigated the reactions in the first place.
I've had to ask the same of myself.
When we started this journey eight years ago, we had no idea what we were entering. I had never heard of the play before it came into my life, and consciously decided not to do any research on it to have my own pure and unique experience with its unfolding. When I first read it, the word "controversial" never once entered my conscience. What did enter was a lot of old wounds I'd tucked away from old Catholic stories I long since tried to vanquish from my life. This play felt "too religious" to me and I wasn't sure I could bring an honesty and loving authenticity to the character of Joshua (Jesus) I was asked to play, simply because I left the church when it told me I didn't belong. But as we continued with rehearsals and delved deeper into the words, I began to understand the teachings on a much more visceral level, and realized the blame I was putting onto the church was only holding me back from living my full authentic and loving self.
The play became one my greatest teachers.
As the journey continued, I began to slowly learn of the imposed controversy firsthand. At first I couldn't wrap my head around why this was considered so contentious, especially after we were all experiencing such divine exchanges through the words, through each other, and through our audiences. And then some picketers showed up, the emails started pouring in, and through attempted dialogue I tried to understand where they were coming from. What I learned blew my mind: they didn't know. They heard of this "gay Jesus" thing, dismissed it automatically as sacrilege and showed up, or wrote, in protest. So in response, we invite them in as our guest, and each time we are graciously declined.
For awhile I would allow myself to "understand" when you hear the words "gay" and "Jesus" put together, it can stir up something within, and thus the word "controversy" naturally follows. But no more. Yes I still think it may stir something up within, but that's hardly controversial in my book. That feeling's actually the greatest gift you can give yourself to learn, grow, and journey deeper to your connection within. And why shouldn't these two words be used together? Being gay is the greatest gift I feel I have been given, because of the spiritual journey it has taken me on through living in a marginalized faction of society. And this is Joshua's journey in the play. It's not about the sexualization of the Savior, it's about how our sexuality can be a catalyst for great spirituality. And the untouchable nature of "God" can actually be found within each of us through self-love.
What we've learned in our eight-year journey with the play, is that the conversation is still quite prevalent, if not deepened, through the dialogue it continues to ignite. It's no longer now about if the LGBT community will have full equality, it's about when, and for that reason, people are looking to deepen their connection to faith as they feel more included in their neighborhood. If one play can continue to spark dialogue and conversation after 16 years, and that's considered controversial, then I say bring it on.
You can watch our journey with the play unfold in our documentary feature Corpus Christi: Playing with Redemption being released nationwide through Breaking Glass Pictures on October 14 on DVD/VOD. Visit www.iamlovecampaign.org to see how you can watch, download, share, and purchase the film. View the Official Trailer here.