Since opening in New York in 1998, Terrence McNally’s play “Corpus Christi” has sparked controversy throughout the world for its depiction of Jesus as a gay man living in 20th–century Texas.
The play has been condemned, picketed and banned.
And McNally, who is openly gay, has received death threats.
Theatrical Tendencies opens a production of the play at the Milwaukee Gay Arts Center on March 11. WiG asked director Mark E. Schuster to share his insights about the play as well as the experience of directing it.
John Quinlan: What is there about the play that excites you?
Mark E. Schuster: Just the idea of a “second coming” of a Christ figure in modern times with the possibility that he might be homosexual is what interests me most. I know that everyone would not feel the same way. I like that this show will force the audience to consider that idea. Would I be as willing to accept these messages of love and acceptance and respect from a gay man? As Joshua says in the show, “The Word is the Word, not the man who speaks it.”
What do you like about McNally as a playwright?
The way he is able to create characters that audiences can truly care about and put them in realistic situations where we are able to share in their joy and pain, their triumphs and struggles is something I find very appealing about his work.
Has this production presented any special challenges?
We have had a really great time with the show. There is a lot of humor in it, and it’s been lots of fun trying to figure out how far to take some of it. We’re doing our best to understand the relationship between Joshua and Judas in the play. There is very little written into the dialog, so we’re trying to flesh out and discover the complexities of why Judas would betray Joshua in a contemporary re-telling of the story. Staging it has certainly been a challenge, as we try to fit 13 men on an 8 x 20 stage with no wing space.
Do you anticipate any controversy in Milwaukee?
We have not heard of any controversy concerning our upcoming production. I’d like to think that is due to society’s ever-evolving views of and acceptance of my LGBT brothers and sisters, but as we see in news reports from around the country that doesn’t seem to always be the case. The rash of gay teen suicides weighed heavily on us as we began our process with this show. Joshua is bullied in the play in high school. In the final moments of the show, James the Less repeatedly says, “Look what they did to him.” I thought the same thing when I heard about those young people taking their own lives – “Look what they (their peers and tormentors) did to them.”
Why is theater that pushes the limits important, even if it offends some people?
I don’t think “Corpus Christi” is an offensive show. Irreverent, definitely. It simply takes an old and familiar tale and sets it in a new time and place with some startling results. The three wise men have become room service bellhops, Joshua is tempted in the desert by James Dean and an HIV-positive hustler is cured of his disease. It certainly pushes some limits and will not appeal to everyone. I long to be challenged when I go to the theatre, and I like to make my audiences have to work a little before they get to go home as well. I believe it is important to grow from every theatrical experience in some way.
Do you believe that this play is any way disrespectful of Christianity?
I believe this show is completely respectful and true to the teachings of Christ. It just presents those teachings in a new and very casual way. It uses humor (and some four letter words) to remind us that this story still rings true in a modern setting. I think the show’s critics haven’t taken the time to understand what it is trying to do. They assume that because Joshua and the disciples are gay that the very worst aspects of what they believe the “gay lifestyle” entails will be presented on stage. I think they would have a very different opinion if they would actually see the show.
Have you ever been involved with a production that was controversial?
David and I worked on “The Laramie Project” a few years ago, and that was picketed by the Westboro Baptist Church. They actually believe that God hates fags. They would rather see us dead than happy and successful. It was a very sad, eerie and sobering experience.