Playwrights Tony Kushner and Wallace Shawn were among perhaps 600 arts advocates marching silently outside the Oct. 13 opening of Terrence McNally’s controversial Corpus Christi, while the perhaps 1,500 of the play’s protestors shouted, prayed and sang 100 yards away.
The setting was Manhattan’s 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues and the atmosphere was sometimes surreal at the most crowded protest yet outside Off-Broadway’s Manhattan Theatre Club. Watched over by “about 200 police officers” (according to the New York City Police Department), the two groups were separated by a neutral zone in front of City Center, where MTC is located, and only occasional scuffles occurred between police and anti-MTC marchers, who sometimes wandered too close to the penned-in pro McNally area, shouting, “Blasphemy!”
The play, directed by Joe Mantello in a presentational theatrical style, retells the story of Christ refracted through the gay experience. The character “Joshua” (what Jesus is called here) grows up gay in a repressive Corpus Christi, TX. (as did McNally), and gathers 12 apostles (some gay, some not) when it become clear he is the son of God. This humanistic approach shows Joshua as sexually active (his lover is Judas), miracle-performing and contradictory (“Don’t take everything I say so seriously”). Eventually, he is crucified at the end by a narrow-minded community afraid of ideas and diversity.
“They’re protesting our protest!” exclaimed anti-MTC Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights president William Donohue, referring to the pro MTC crowd. Among Donohue’s other complaints about the play is its “hate speech” quality and how liberal playwrights and theatre companies will defend and celebrate the world of African-Americans, Native Americans and others, but will freely “bash” what is “sacred” to a Christian majority.
Using a bullhorn equipped with a siren, Donohue and others denounced the playwright, the theatre and the theatregoers, but added, “They have a right to put it on, and we have a right to protest!” Other anti-MTC protestors kneeled in the street, recited the Catholic Rosary prayer, sang hymns (“Ave Maria”) and yelled at theatregoers (“Close that show! Close that show!”) who entered MTC under heavy security.
Kushner (Angels in America) -- who milled alongside MTC advocates marching with placards quoting everyone from Voltaire to Oprah Winfrey -- told Playbill On-Line: “We’re not protesting the protest at all. We’re not out here questioning their right to protest, we’re here to defend Manhattan Theatre Club’s right to do the play."
While most of the protestors on both sides hadn’t seen the show (tickets sold out quickly for the run, through Nov. 29), Kushner said, “I don’t think you have to have seen the play [to protest]. I think the more responsible people over on the other side would be surprised [if they saw the play], given the bill of goods they’ve been sold by the religious right. It’s not like Christ is [having sex on stage]. I don’t think you have to buy a ticket and see a play before you protest it. The First Amendment protects ignorance.”
Possibly satisfying some of the anti-McNally protestors was the Wednesday morning New York Times review by critic Ben Brantley, who observed that the play was “flat and simpleminded” and it offered “many instances of the threadbare religious humor common to college revues.”
The pro-MTC marchers, organized largely by People for the American Way, dispersed as planned after the curtain went up at 8 PM. A misty drizzle began just before 8, thinning out the anti-MTC crowd, which included bussed-in senior crowds, a group from the Catholic Coalition of Westchester, NY., nuns, priests and others, expressing themselves in English and Spanish.
Bill Dykes, who organized a group from St. Michael’s Apostolate of Flushing, NY., told Playbill On-Line the march was a victory for the anti-MTC faction: “We feel it’s a success. It’s a long-range thing, a matter of persevering. As you know, it goes to Nov. 29 and we’re going to be here [again]. You can’t really measure it by how many people turn away [from the play].”
When theatregoers exited the performance at 10PM, the most aggressive anti-MTC protestors were on hand, with one man screaming, “You people are scum! You people are poison!” at any passerby, including unwitting diners from the tony Estiatorio Milos restaurant several doors down from the theatre.
Several of the protestors denounced the man for his “anti-Christian” sentiments and told him to “pray” rather than “swear.” He kept screaming until the crowd broke up at 10:30PM.
Earlier in the evening Kushner, among artists and students, told Playbill On-Line he found the event “thrilling”: "It’s great, it’s really great. I think it’s wonderful to see the arts community in New York. There’s a lot of professional theatre people and professional arts people and arts students. There’s a huge turnout from NYU, from Yale and Juilliard. Ming Cho Lee, the set designer, went to all these schools and made [pleas] to get kids out here."
Kushner said he was offended that some in the “group over there” were handing out flyers questioning federal funding of MTC, using the event as ammunition in a larger arts funding agenda.
According to Kushner the pro-MTC crowd included playwrights Michael Weller, Wallace Shawn, David Henry Hwang, lighting designer Jennifer Tipton and others. Playwright Craig Lucas, one of the more vocal pro-MTC voices, was in Seattle and not able to attend, Kushner said.
Gail Melhado of pro-MTC organizer People for the American Way, which was handing out flyers and lapel stickers to identify the pro-art marchers, said the “silent march” -- minus bullhorns and shouting -- was designed “to be in contrast” to the vocal anti-MTC marchers. “We’re walking quietly for our freedom of expression,” Melhado told Playbill On Line.
A meticulously-groomed Norman Lear (producer of TV’s “All in the Family”), founder of People for the American Way, walked among the crowd of religious protestors, hands in the pockets of his chestnut-colored designer suit.
The placards he read included: “Why Do You Hate Us?,” “Stop the Hate Speech,” “Stop Blaspheming Our Lord,” “Jesus and Mary, Give Them the Grace to See,” “They Crucify Him Again,” You Cannot Go to Heaven If You Lie About Jesus,” and, most prominent among the signs, “Manhattan Theatre Club Guilty of Hate Crime Against Jesus.”
The Rev. Peter Laarman of Judson Memorial Church, a clergy spokesman for People for the American Way, told Playbill On-Line: “We’re celebrating the right that we all have as citizens of this country to see, think and say what we need to see, think and say. Art is expected to be daring and challenging; it ceases to be that when it accommodates people’s preconceptions. It ceases to be significant art. I think that the adherence of religious people to what they believe is strong enough to withstand art."
Meanwhile, Donohue said into a bullhorn that some bigots wear white sheets, while “others dress up like college professors” -- an apparent jab at the natty McNally. “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Terrence McNally has got to go!” chanted the crowd.
Amid the singing of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” the anti-MTC protestors also shouted, “Go Yankees!” to great applause. The Yankees won the pennant later that night, leading them to the World Series.
But the evening also had a pointedly anti-gay flavor, with one anti-MTC sign reading, “Jesus Sets Free From Homosexuality.” Several anti-MTC protestors who would not give their names, said, among other things, that gay people cause AIDS and homosexuals are on a path to sickness and death.
One lane was open for traffic on 55th Street between 6th and 7th avenues. The oddest protestor frequently drove by in a red car with a flagpole sticking out of the window. The pole’s American flag was upside down, flapping in the wind. It was unclear whose side the driver’s favored.
Controversy about Corpus Christi at MTC first erupted in May when, after announcing the show, MTC was threatened with violence by unspecified religious groups. Artistic director Lynne Meadow pulled the work, claiming safety concerns for the company.
The arts community -- including Kushner, McNally and playwright Athol Fugard -- expressed outrage. Fugard pulled his upcoming MTC script from the season in protest.
After security concerns were addressed, MTC changed its mind and put Corpus Christi back on the 1998-99 season. Fugard allowed his play to be staged there, too.
The title, Corpus Christi, is Latin for “Body of Christ.”
-- By Kenneth Jones