Terrence McNally's play is provocative and has been dogged by controversy since its premiere in 1998, but remains powerful and relevant today.
Sarah Honosky | February 5, 2018
This February, Richmond Triangle Players presents Corpus Christi, the retelling of the New Testament that is sometimes considered to be one of the most controversial stage productions of all time. The play imagines Jesus Christ as a gay man born in rural America in the 1950s, an amalgamation of two seemingly contradictory experiences, jumping from sexual awakenings at a high school dance to the crucifixion with surprising cohesion. The play, written by playwright Terrence McNally, was first performed in 1998, and its contentious history of cancellations and protests, paired with a story that transcends millennia, delivers a timeless gospel to Richmond, two thousand years late.
Corpus Christi is the story of McNally’s Christ figure, Joshua, a gay man born and raised in Corpus Christi, Texas in the twentieth century. It follows him from birth to death as he gathers his 12 Apostles and preaches love and acceptance, delivering miracles and safety to a modern era. Throughout the play, which is performed in an unchanging, minimalist setting, fate is an inescapable refrain. Joshua often hears the distant sound of hammers, a precursor to Christ’s infamous conclusion.
“There is no suspense,” writes McNally in his preface to the play. “There is no scenery. The purpose of the play is that we begin again the familiar dialogue with ourselves: Do I love my neighbor?”
Director Dexter Ramey has been trying to get this play on RTP’s stage for years. He said it is the perfect play for Richmond’s Act of Faith Festival, a community-wide collaboration between Richmond theatres and faith communities. “Christ is all things to all people, so why wouldn’t he be a gay man?” said Ramey.
Though the play is often met with community condemnation, with closures forced on countless attempted productions, RTP has largely found support for the production in Richmond. Ramey said despite protests in the form of mail, phone calls, and letters from some religious and far-right organizations, like hate group America Needs Fatima,, they are not overly concerned.
“We’ve met with the police department and we’ve made arrangements just in case,” said Ramey. “We don’t expect anything.”
From its first appearance on stage, Corpus Christi became synonymous with controversy. The original New York City production in 1998 was temporarily canceled after a barrage of death threats and protests threatened to turn violent. Eventually, the production was reinstated. The producers were determined to put on the show despite backlash from religious groups, including the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.
The day before Corpus Christi premiered on the New York stage, a young gay man, Matthew Shepard, died from injuries sustained after he was beaten senseless and crucified on a split-rail fence in Laramie, Wyoming.
“There was a story to be told,” said Ramey. “This innocent, loving person was brutalized and victimized. He was left pretty much hung on a cross himself. That’s where I go with the play.”
“[Shepard] died as agonizing a death as another young man who had been tortured and nailed to a wooden cross at a desolate spot outside Jerusalem known as Golgotha some 1998 years earlier,” wrote McNally. “They died as they lived, as brothers.”
Despite the separation of two thousand years and more than seven thousand miles, the intersection of these narratives is haunting.
“Life is a cycle,” said Ramey. And though Shepard’s death is twenty years in the past, new challenges faced by the LGBTQ community have brought the story back around again. In a country where the number of hate crimes has increased for a second consecutive year, violence against people based on race and orientation has faced a steep rise in recent years. Ramey said the current political administration has a heavy influence on the rising numbers. “[They’ve] legitimized hate again.”
“There are many more people whose hate is empowered now,” said RTP executive director Philip Crosby. “It becomes even more important that our voices remain strong and determined, and that we don’t hate back. We try to open up as many hearts and minds as we can. That’s always been our goal. Diversity and inclusion make our communities a stronger place.”
Corpus Christi creates an entryway into the complex conversation surrounding faith and queerness, aspects of identity often painted as contradictory.
“We’ve always participated in the Acts of Faith festival, and take it really seriously,” said Crosby. “I think we do because there are some religious sects who believe a faith life and being gay or lesbian are incompatible, that you can’t be accepted by God and be gay. So that’s an issue we are constantly battling against, and taking folks to task for that.”
Before RTP produced the play, Crosby said he took the script to two well-known Richmond ministers to see if they could get away with it. Crosby laughed, recalling their reaction. “Both of their responses were, ‘When are you going to do it, because I want to come see it.’”
The RTP production balanced its powerful message with humor and simplicity. The apostles form an often-comedic chorus, jumping from role to role with an unending supply of faux-southern drawls and simple props. The play begins with the cast literally stripped bare, each changing from everyday clothes into identical white-button downs and khakis on stage. It forms an immediate intimacy with the audience, heightened by the dim, close theater and the low stage.
The production is unapologetically gay, and Joshua (Adam Turck) shares some of the strongest on-stage moments with Judas (Chandler Hubbard), his first-love turned jilted lover. The chemistry is palpable, tense with the audience’s knowledge of Judas’s inevitable, infamous betrayal.
The end is jarring and sudden. Joshua is crucified on the stage’s only real adornment, a hulking wooden cross, wearing only his briefs and a crown of thorns. Seeing him there, it’s hard to think of anything but the continued persecution of LGBTQ individuals in small towns across America; of gay youth losing their homes, faith, and lives; of Matthew Shepard tied to a fence post in Laramie, Wyoming — a story that repeats itself in countless narratives throughout history.
“To be murdered by people for something God made is the tragedy and the hypocrisy that the play still speaks to,” said Crosby. “I think it’s something familiar to almost anybody, but it’s going to be told in a brand new way.”
The show runs Thursday through Sunday nights until February 24 at the Robert B. Moss Theatre, home of Richmond Triangle Players, located at 1300 Altamont Ave. Tickets range from $10-$28, and you can get them here.