GLAAD talks to director of new documentary Corpus Christi

In 1998, the Terrence McNally play, Corpus Christi, opened Off-Broadway, amid violent protest. The play, which depicted Jesus Christ and his disciples living as gay men in 1950s Texas, stirred the ire of anti-LGBT activists, including Bill Donohue. Now, a new documentary follows a cast as they tour the show across the United States.

Corpus Christi: Playing with Redemption, a documentary that follows the performers and audience as they bring this play across the country and around the world will begin preview screenings on October 13 (the anniversary date for the original Off-Broadway and the tour opening). Then on October 14, the film premiere is nationally released on DVD/VOD through various outlets.

In addition to the release, Corpus Christi encourages people to participate in the I AM Love Campaign tour.  If interested in having your city host a tour stop, and to get more information about all of this, visit www.iamlovecampaign.org.  

GLAAD was able to ask some questions of James Brandon, the director of Corpus Christi: Playing with Redemption.

The play Corpus Christi got its debut in New York over 15 years ago. What was the significance in telling the story of a touring production?

Terrence's opening of the show Off Broadway in 1998 was tumultuous and full of protests and violence.  When you have to walk through metal detectors just to get to your seat in a theatre, you're never really settling into the story or experience.  

Eight years ago our director, Nic Arnzen, was asked to direct a play at his church.  He immediately thought of CORPUS CHRISTI. Having Terrence's retelling of the passion play, as seen through the lens of a young gay Jesus, set in a gay-affirming church, seemed like an ideal setting and perfect fit.  It was.  Although all of us in the company come from different religious beliefs and backgrounds, we had one singular focus and intention in common:  we believed in this story of inclusive Love for all people, no matter the chosen table of faith.  And the iconic Jesus story, whether we followed it or not in our own personal lives, felt like an accessible way to share this message of Love.  

We were only meant to do six performances of the play and move on with our lives.    But that first opening night, something happened.  It can only be described as "theatre magic" when every elemental experience aligns and you are feeling this kinetic connection to the words, the actors and the audience.  Spiritually speaking, we "were all One."  And the journey began.  

The play seems to have a profound impact on everyone involved, both the actors and audience. What do you think the power of the play is? Finding an accepting Christ? Being moved by the passion? Something else entirely? 

I think because it's more than just a play.  This takes it a step further because the audience is a fully integrated part of the storytelling, and so therefore we are all in it together.  I hope the same can be said for the film, because that was our main intention while crafting it.  Although the play is centered around the "Jesus story" from nativity to crucifixion, and many will recognize some Biblical stories, really it's just a way to let people in to a much bigger message of the meaning of Love.  

I'll never forget closing night of a run we had in Los Angeles, at the end of the show a man came running down to the stage and wept at my feet.  It was unbelievable.  After talking to him later, he was a straight married man with kids who just felt moved to say thank you.  I only say this last part to illustrate the inclusivity of this experience.  I think that's why our production has continued for as long as it has- a message can be universally received when you are able to closely identify with someone talking to you.  

And the message in this is simple:  no matter who we are, where we come from, where we live, how old we are, or what we believe in, we can all recognize in each other the capacity to love.  And through this, we've learned and felt on a visceral level what Love really is.  It's how we are all connected in this diverse and wacky world, and if we can see that, even "in our enemy," we are able to live peacefully in the present, allow each other to be, and joyously create moment to moment from this empowered place of being.  I humbly and honestly feel knowing and experiencing that is what happens through the journey of this production and that is the power of this play.

The Christian church has been in flux in its relationship with LGBT people over the last several years. What do you attribute that to? Do you think the play had any small part in that?

I won't take any credit for that with our particular production, but I would certainly give credit to Terrence for the play.  In 1998 when it was written and first produced, we were not having the evolved conversations we are readily having now about LGBT equality, marriage equality, even general civil rights.  And we especially weren't having a conversation about what it means to be gay and still identify as Christian, or any particular faith.  It's the reason I left the church in the first place: I was raised Catholic and followed the beliefs and stories, even loved them, but at the same time was told I wasn't allowed and didn't belong.  That's a heartbreaking realization to experience.  

What Terrence did when he wrote the play, was take these issues and bring them to the forefront of conversational and practical change in society.  And of course, as it is with any societal shift, it starts with intense pushback.  He felt that to the core of his being; what was intended for him to be a deeply spiritual experience and outlet, became something else entirely.  And the Catholic hierarchy at the time, specifically William Donohue, was a major force of opposition spreading untrue thoughts about what it was really about.  

Time and time again people just shut us down or call us "blasphemous" without ever having read the script or seen the play. The words "gay" and "Jesus" just don't sit well together for people.  And that is fine.  We are not saying this is the answer or that he was in fact gay.  It's actually not about that at all.  Some may even say He is an "untouchable" and to consider sexualizing him is a blasphemy.  

But the truth of the play is very different than that: the character of Joshua does indeed explore his sexuality in high school but actually uses that exploration as a catalyst for His spiritual growth and ultimate journey to leadership most people will eventually recognize in Him. If people who criticize this, without ever having seen or read it, believe Jesus was human and walked this earth, it's hard to believe He didn't then experience human emotions to some degree- (he did get terribly angry in the temples one time I recall)- and human sexuality can be a deeply divine way to explore one's spirituality.  

I do believe for the most part the church is recognizing the simplicity in Jesus' teachings to "love thy neighbor as thyself," and is slowly evolving to allow anyone in who chooses to come to their table of faith.  

What do you think the overall message is of the play? Is that different than the message of the documentary?

I think the message of the play and documentary are exactly the same and can be summed up in one of the final lines of the play:  "He loved every one of us, that's all He was about," and in one of the final lines of the film:  "Through Love we are connected, we are all together in this."  Love yourself first, and all things are not only possible, but easier.  Through this we create more love around us, and by creating more love around us, the deeper change our community is seeking will manifest. Instead of fighting those against us, we can stand together in a unified and empowered place, knowing the equality and acceptance we seek must first begin within.