Corpus Christi is a small Texas city; population 282,000. It’s also a Latin phrase used in the Roman Catholic Mass, meaning, “Body of Christ.” And, it’s the title of a controversial Terrence McNally play which premièred on Broadway in 1998.
It was back in the news several weeks ago when Tarleton State University in Texas canceled performance of the play, which was being done as part of a directing class and as a for students only drama project. The university president called the play “offensive, crude and irreverent” and the Texas Lieutenant Governor in a press release said, “no one should have the right to use government funds or institutions to portray acts that are morally reprehensible to the vast majority of Americans.” Which made me question, Has either man ever seen or read the play?
I saw the show in its opening run at the Manhattan Theater Club in 1998. At the time, death threats to McNally, bomb scares to the theater and protests by religious zealots, precipitated cancellation of the show. A counter outcry from artists and civil liberties organizations forced the Theater Club to reschedule. The evening I saw Corpus Christi, a mob of rowdy protesters were behind police barricades on the opposite side of West Forty-Seventh Street from the theater. As we entered, each of us was wanded, TSA style.
Like many in attendance, I was deeply moved by the production. Time magazine called it, “A serious, even reverent retelling of the Christ story in a modern idiom.” Daily Variety commented, “…the essential truth at the heart of the play cannot be dismissed. If today a gay man arrived bearing the same gifts Christ brought to the world, his journey might end just as terribly.”
When I left the theater, the protesters were gone and I wondered then, as I do now, whether any on them had read the play or seen the show.
In McNally’s play, the Christ figure is a young man named Joshua who grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas in the fifties knowing he was different. He was homosexual. To escape the small town isolation and bigotry, Joshua left Corpus Christi and in his travels he taught and preached a gospel of tolerance, love and acceptance. A group of twelve young men became his followers—a writer, a teacher, a masseur, a hustler, a doctor, a restaurateur, a fish seller, a lawyer, an actor, an architect, a singer and a hairdresser.
If the composition of the disciple group wasn’t enough to stir the hackles of religious traditionalists, the fact that in the play Joshua officiated at a gay wedding and had Judas as a lover, would certainly tip the scales. But the play is merely a vehicle to make the gospel story relevant to contemporary times. The clear message of Corpus Christi is that all souls are equal in the sight of God. The Bartholomew character, the doctor, in his final line states, “He loved every one of us. That’s all He was about.”
Why is that message controversial?
Part of the answer is that we create our gods in our own image. In Anglo culture Jesus is always portrayed as white, slender, emaciated, effete, and with soulful eyes. In African culture, he’s black, more robust and more masculine. The truth is Jesus was Semitic and his skin color was probably olive. But was he tall, short, thin, fat, gay or straight? We don’t know and we never will.
Do any of these characteristics, however, diminish the value of Jesus’ teachings? Is “Blessed are the poor in spirit…the mourners…the meek …the merciful,” of less value if Jesus was five foot two inches and weighed two hundred and fifty pounds? Is “Love your neighbor as yourself” a valuable precept only if uttered by a straight man? Is the beauty of the Sistine Chapel, or Michelangelo’s David, or the music of Bernstein’s Mass of less merit because their creators happened to be homosexual? If Jesus were gay, would his teachings be less relevant?
A thirty year old unemployed single male wandering the fields and shores of ancient Palestine as a self-styled preacher, in the company of twelve other guys, was never a traditional life style in the middle-east, or anywhere else. Was Jesus intimately associated with any of his disciples? Was He secretly married to Mary Magdelene, as some scholars suggest? Was his association with the harlots of His day purely professional? No one knows.
But the real question is, If He was? SO WHAT!
Does a Chanel jacket have to bear the label to be a classic? Must an aged Scotch be in a Glenfiddich bottle for one to appreciate the taste? Must Jesus be straight for His precepts to be valid?
Is the value in the product or the packaging?
The power structure, civil and religious, in Jesus’ time was sufficiently disturbed by His teachings to do away with Him. The power structure in Texas today is sufficiently disturbed by Corpus Christi to suppress the play.
The Virginia Slims slogan, “You’ve come a long way baby,” is often quoted by gay and lesbian leaders as a signal of our progress. But the Texas debacle over Corpus Christi is proof positive we have a long way to go before we, as a society, can affirm the message of Corpus Christi—“…all souls are equal in the sight of God.”
John Siegfried, a former Rehoboth resident, lives in Ft. Lauderdale. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.