Terrence McNally is considered one of the leading American dramatists still alive and writing today. Among the honors he has received are four Tony Awards, two Guggenheim Fellowships, A Rockefeller Grant, and a citation from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He has written both stage dramas and musicals, most of which are popular and well-received.
This spring the drama students at the Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas choose the most provocative play written by McNally to produce, Corpus Christi as part of their student-director theater fest. In it they found the story of Jesus’ life on Earth, which they revered, and the challenge of modernized passages (such as Jesus and the Apostles attending their Senior Prom at Pontious Pilot High School). In addition, the play also provides the hypothesis that Jesus and his disciples may have been gay and struggled with their sexuality as part of their lives on Earth. In essence, McNally considered it his autobiography, detailing his own struggles.
Most Christians consider the Bible the ultimate word on the life of Jesus Christ. However, as scholars know, all of history is written with the biases, conscious and unconscious, of the writer or writers of the time. Artists take it as their mission to stretch the boundaries of generally accepted and popular morals and have depicted Jesus as African-American, Asian and even female. However, when Texas government officials found out the play was going to be produced, they nixed it.
David Dewhurst, Lt. Governor of Texas stated, “No one should have the right to use government funds of institutions to portray acts that are morally reprehensible to the vast majority of Americans.” It is not exactly clear which “acts” the Lt. Governor was referring to. In the eyes of theater enthusiasts here in Rhode Island, that decision to not allow the play is censorship plain and simple. How is it that Lt. Governor Dewhurst is so prescient to know what is “morally reprehensible to the vast majority of Americans”. He may speak for Texas, but the rest of the country may like to have its own say.
So Director Kevin Broccoli and the Epic Theatre Company in Rhode Island used the Texas brouhaha as a springboard to let locals know what the piece is all about. It “depicts Jesus as a young gay man growing up in Texas, and it’s based on McNally’s own life growing up in the Lone Star State,” says Broccoli. “The message is similar to The Last Temptation of Christ in the way it deals with Christ and whether or not he was a sexual being. It’s a very pro-faith play, but obviously very controversial.”
They decided to give a staged reading of the play in Cranston, RI. A short while after Director Broccoli announced the reading, he received this letter from a student who was to be part of that production of Corpus Christi:
Dear Mr. Broccoli,
My name is S– and I found your profile through a link about the canceling of “Corpus Christi” in Stephenville, TX. I was in that cast and I want to applaud you for the courage that you have. It is such a powerful play so, treat it well! My parents have alway supported me in everything I did, until “Corpus Christi”. When (excuse the expression) s— hit the fan, they’d rather kick their only child to the curb than have their “image” tarnished. Our production was canceled before our tech rehearsals but we did not find out about the cancellation until we were done. Our department head (who was the teacher of the class that this assignment was for) sat through the entire three hour tech rehearsal and let us continue without saying a word. PLEASE, do not hide anything from your cast. Lying can do more than you think. To the actors, I admire them and wish you the best of luck.
All My Love,
In response to this letter Mr. Broccoli wrote:
“It got me to thinking-What else would Mr. Dewhurst consider morally reprehensible? Angels in America? The Laramie Project? Spring Awakening?
This man is yet another politician in a long line of politicians who has chosen to attack art and the ability to do art, because it’ll get him a few extra votes from homophobes and ignorant people who don’t want to be faced with something they don’t understand.
“Corpus Christi” is perhaps one of the most pro-faith plays I’ve ever read. It does not seek to bash or attack Christians or what they believe. It attacks small-minded people like Lt. Governor Dewhurst who believe that the government should fund wars, but not theater.
So why am I telling you all this? Well, at some point or another, we’ve all worked together, sat in an audience together, or passed each other at one show or another. We’re part of a community here in Rhode Island. I believe it’s a fantastic community. I believe it’s a diverse community filled with intelligent people who support daring and thought-provoking work.
In 1998, when this play was going to be produced in America, it was almost shut down by ultra-conservative religious groups, but the theater community in New York pushed back. They made sure that it happened, not just in spite of the backlash, but because of it. I believe this is a theater community similar to their community in that respect.
I know you’re all involved with productions, rehearsals, auditions, and on top of all of that, your daily lives, but I also know that many of you are always willing to help even when you’re at your busiest. For that, I’m very blessed.
And I need to ask for that help now.
Even if you can’t come to see the reading of “Corpus Christi” this Friday and Saturday night, spread the word about it. If there are people you think may be interested in seeing it, tell them. It’s a beautiful piece of theater, and it should be heard. Ultimately, I believe this is a play about a community of faith. It’s about a group of people who share a belief and band together to protect that belief.
I believe in theater, and I’m willing to protect that belief.”
All of the staged readings of Corpus Christi by Epic Theatre Company enjoyed enthusiastic, supportive audiences each night they performed.