If a work’s success is measured by its ability to remain relevant, inspire others, and create dialogue, Terrence McNally’s play Corpus Christi is successful indeed.
The play — especially its nontraditionally cast production by Los Angeles theater group 108 Productions — is the subject of a new documentary, Corpus Christi: Playing With Redemption, and the force behind the I Am Love Campaign, an effort to end religion-based bias against LGBT people and advance understanding between LGBT and faith communities.
“The LGBT community is on this incredible verge of total equality within this country,” says James Brandon, who with Nic Arnzen is codirector and coproducer of the documentary and cofounder of I Am Love. “It feels like right now this community is on the verge of total acceptance. But religious dogma seems to be the block for many people.”
The campaign is dedicated to bringing down that block, which loomed even larger when Corpus Christi made its world premiere at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York City in 1998. McNally’s play depicts Jesus, here called Joshua, and his followers as gay men in 1950s Texas. The acclaimed playwright, a four-time Tony-winner, now says he was actually surprised it was controversial.
“I really thought that it would be seen as a play, a serious play, a meditation on spirituality,” he says. But it became the target of protests and threats, and the theater canceled and then reinstated the production. “The controversy in New York, I felt, was a very false controversy,” McNally says, ginned up by antigay Catholic activist and gadfly William Donahue. Donahue, he says, spread rumors that the play contained nudity and explicit sex — which it does not and never did — and then claimed to have pressured McNally into excising those elements.
While most productions of Corpus Christi have featured a cast of young men, primarily white, for this one, director Arnzen cast both men and women, of varying ages and races. It was initially scheduled to run for just six performances, says Brandon, who played Joshua and has continued to do so, but the audience reaction was “transcendent.” He and the rest of the company moved from the church to a long run at the Zephyr Theatre in Los Angeles and have since taken the play on tour to San Francisco, Edinburgh, Dublin, Dallas, and elsewhere, including a New York run for Corpus Christi’s 10th anniversary.
While the Manhattan Theatre Club production of Corpus Christi was excellent, McNally says, Arnzen’s unique casting definitely added something to the play. “I think it opened up the play and made it much more accessible to a wider audience,” he says. “It gave it a universality that we had not discovered in the original production, and I was deeply moved by it.”
“It allows all the boundaries to be shattered,” Brandon adds. “Everybody in the audience can relate to someone on that stage.”
As the troupe took its production around the world, the cast and crew decided their interactions with audiences were important to document, in addition to their interactions with each other and how their participation affected their lives. Many of the people in the play, Brandon says, “were healing old wounds,” often having to do with religion. So he and Arnzen decided to put this all on film.
The film includes commentary from McNally and his husband, Thomas Kirdahy, and such high-profile defenders of the play as Larry Kramer and Norman Lear. It gives voice to those who object to Corpus Christi as well, such as a woman in Dublin who makes her argument in a civil tone, and others who adopt a less courteous manner. It also depicts the dangers company members sometimes faced; when they took the play to Dallas, for instance, Brandon received a death threat.
“It was jarring and alarming and very, very scary,” he says, “but I also knew that there was no way I would let that get in my way.” No attack materialized.
Also during the production’s various engagements, Brandon says, “It became second nature for us to stay and do a talkback with the audience.” So that gave rise to I Am Love Campaign, which will feature public forums for the discussion of LGBT issues and religion.
The campaign organizers hope to do a national tour, with stops in each company member’s hometown; St. Louis, the first stop, is where Brandon grew up. This weekend’s events will include performances of the play, screenings of the film, a town hall meeting, cast-led workshops, and awards to local activists, including St. Louis mayor Francis Slay, a marriage equality advocate.
Brandon, who is gay, was brought up Catholic; doing the play “certainly at first brought up a lot of old Catholic stories that I had worked most of my life to get away from,” he says. But the project helped him develop a love for the church again, although he is not a practicing Catholic, identifying instead as “spiritual.”
Likewise, McNally, also raised Catholic, says, “I consider myself a spiritual person — I don’t practice Catholicism, although I’m a big supporter of the new pope.” He says Corpus Christi is in no way anti-Catholic, or anti-Christianity in general. “The point of the play is that we’re all divine,” he says.
McNally, who has made a lasting mark on American theater with plays including The Lisbon Traviata, Master Class, the recent Mothers and Sons, and Love! Valour! Compassion! and librettos for musicals such as Ragtime and Kiss of the Spider Woman, is still adding to his body of work. He has a new show, It’s Only a Play, in previews on Broadway; it stars F. Murray Abraham, Matthew Broderick, Stockard Channing, Rupert Grint, Nathan Lane, Megan Mullally, and newcomer Micah Stock. And an off-Broadway revival of Lips Together, Teeth Apart, with a cast headed by America Ferrera, opens in October.
Corpus Christi, which he calls “a very significant work, one I’m very, very proud of,” has become “almost a golden oldie by now,” he says. Noting the progress in LGBT rights since 1998, he adds, “If Corpus Christi has been part of that progress, I’m very proud of that.” The documentary and the I Am Love Campaign will help continue that process, he says: “I think it’s so important to spread the message of the play.”
Corpus Christi: Playing With Redemption, released by Breaking Glass Pictures, will be shown as part of the I Am Love Campaign’s series of events this weekend in St. Louis, and available on DVD and VOD October 14. Watch a trailer below, and for more information on the film and the play, plus a full schedule of this weekend’s events, visit IAmLoveCampaign.org.