Corpus Christi, Terrence McNally's play about a gay Christ-like figure, is again causing outrage, but this time in the heartland — at Indiana University-Purdue University (IPFW) in Fort Wayne, IN.
The play became a flashpoint for those supporting freedom of speech and those against what was seen as anti-Christian values and beliefs when it premiered in fall 1998 at Manhattan Theatre Club. Now, a lawsuit filed July 5 at the courthouse in Fort Wayne is seeking to block presentation of the student-directed staging. Theatre directing major Jonathan Gilbert proposed McNally's play as his senior directing project, according to theatre department chair and artistic director Larry Life, and the department OK'd the choice. A local newspaper reported about the planned show two months ago and that's when the community outrage began, Life told Playbill On-Line.
Only two performances were scheduled, but community interest has prompted the addition of four more dates. The run is Aug. 10-18 in the department's 120-seat Studio Theatre. Admission is $10. The shows were not sold out as of July 6.
Allen County residents and 21 state lawmakers are attached to the federal lawsuit that claims it is unconstitutional to mount the play on taxpayer-funded property because it would represent a state-sponsored attack on Christianity. The IPFW and 10 members of the Purdue University Board of Trustees are named as defendants.
The lawsuit seeks an injunction to prevent the performances. According to the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, the plaintiffs' representative, Indianapolis attorney John Price, argues, "If the governmental agency in Indiana which seeks to use our funds to attack Christianity is not restrained from doing so, many will conclude that the so-called 'wall of separation between church and state' is a one-way wall." Anthony Benton, a lawyer representing the university, stated in a letter to Price that "the actions of IPFW and its employees in question have had a secular purpose; have not had the effect of advancing or inhibiting any particular religions or religion in general; and, have not fostered an excessive entanglement between religion and government. Just because IPFW declines to censor a student's speech as you demand, does not mean that IPFW has endorsed that speech. The relief you seek would be an infringement of First Amendment rights to free speech and academic freedom enjoyed by IPFW students and faculty connected with the production."
IPFW theatre department chair Life told Playbill On-Line that department funds are usually put toward student projects, but the student director raised $3,000 on his own to present the work. "The only university money is that we are allowing him the space to do the production," Life said.
Life is a 30-year veteran of IPFW and one of the reasons he has stayed with the university so long, he said, is its commitment to academic-artistic freedom. "This isn't the first time we've had controversy, but it's the first time we've had controversy of this magnitude," Life said, adding that theatre department stagings of Bent and Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You were also criticized by the community.
"What I think is at the bottom of it is homophobia," Life said. "I'm doing [a summer staging of] Bye Bye Birdie. If I said my interpretation and take was that Conrad Birdie is a rock star who is Christ-like, no one would give a damn. But since there's a gay Christ figure in Corpus Christi, everybody's upset."
Life said he has received one letter that was a "veiled" death threat, and all such letters are turned over the campus police. He said a letter from state senators indicated that the lawmakers could withhold $750,000 of state funds to the university if they so chose.
At Manhattan Theatre Club in 1998, Corpus Christi was pulled from the season schedule over concerns for staff and company members' safety, but the artistic community was outraged over the appearance that the nonprofit troupe was caving in to community pressure rather than championing artistic freedom. The play was put back on the schedule and bomb-sniffing dogs and metal detectors were part of the admission process. Thousands of protestors and supporters converged on 55th Street during the run. Reviews were not favorable and suggested the controversy was more interesting than the art.
IPFW campus police and Fort Wayne police are exploring security options for those attending the Fort Wayne student staging, which only a tiny slice of the population would have attended had it not been for the publicity.
The theatre department at IPFW offers bachelor of arts degrees in theatre and theatre teaching. There are about 40 theatre majors in the department, which has a faculty of five. Openly gay actor Dan Butler (of TV's "Frasier") is among the department's alumni. He recently endowed a $50,000 scholarship in the department. About seven productions — a mix of student and faculty work — are staged per year in the black box Studio Theatre or the 297-seat thrust space, the Williams Theatre.
— By Kenneth Jones