By Lani Conway
A gay, Jesus-like figure born in a Texas motel. Twelve disciples in a gay club. A gay marriage between two apostles, and a shape-shifting devil who transforms into James Dean.
Welcome to Corpus Christi.
The theater arts department presented Terrence McNally’s play “Corpus Christi” from May 9 to 18 at the Experimental Theater.
Directed by UC Santa Cruz graduate student James Martin, the unusual take on the Gospels weaves biblical scripture with modern-day elements and rewrites the story of Jesus and his disciples by turning Jesus’ sexuality into a platform for reflection on gender and the nature of anti-gay discrimination.
“What we tried to make light of and expose was hate crimes and discrimination and how they are really overlooked,” said actor Tommy Kearney, who played John the Baptist. “The large percentage of people that are persecuted through hate crimes are the people who are already looked down upon by society.”
Jesus’ brutal beating and crucifixion at the end of the program left audiences stunned. Applause quickly turned into reflective silence. But as Judas Iscariot, Jesus’ jealous betrayer, said at the start of the play, “Truth is brutal.”
“A lot of the audience didn’t know there would be a dramatic shift from this peace and love and lightheartedness in the first half, to instant pain, death and suffering [in the second half],” Kearney said. “It was jarring and extreme, but we wanted to push people, to really put things in their face, and to make it real for them in that moment.”
McNally’s dramatization has received both critical acclaim and harsh criticism for its depiction of a gay Jesus, but Ashkahn Jahromi, who plays the Jesus-inspired Joshua, said blasphemy is far from the play’s intended message.
“The show is not necessarily something you can be offended at,” he said. “It doesn’t work to bastardize anybody, alienate anybody, offend or try to change anybody’s personal beliefs.”
Biblically-themed, the play carried a universal message beyond religion.
“When you ask anybody what the main message of the play is, it is love,” Jahromi said. “And it seems really simple, but a part of the idea is that it is that simple.”
Jack Sale, actor and second-year theater arts major, pointed to another message: “All men are divine.”
“If people treat each other as divine there would be no war, there would be no hate,” Sale said. “People would love each other.”
Each performance ended with slides of victims of anti-gay hate crimes.
“I think the ideas are universal, but it’s important to have those slides in there to make people make the association that this isn’t just us retelling the story of Jesus,” Jahromi said. “It’s a vessel for things that have actually happened.”
The May 15 decision of the California supreme court to overturn the ban on same-sex marriage correlated with another showing of “Corpus Christi,” which featured a gay marriage scene. To the cast, an emotional and historical landmark was coupled with the realization of the play’s relevance.
“It was such an emotional day for us all and a beautiful step in the right direction,” Sale said. “During the gay marriage scene it was hard for me to keep myself from letting loose because after that I entered as the malicious priest denouncing gay marriage.”
During a talkback between cast and audience members after a Saturday show, one person asked why Jesus wasn’t resurrected in the play.
Sale was quick to reply.
“Lawrence King is not going to be resurrected, Matthew Shepard is not coming back,” he said, “so why should Jesus?”