The afterlife of Terrence McNally’s play Corpus Christi, it seems, has no end.
In 1998, the play made worldwide headlines the way plays seldom do in the modern age. Its premiere production at Manhattan Theatre Club was marked by continual protests outside the theatre, bomb threats and death threats against McNally. When MTC cancelled the production, the company was met by howls of condemnation from the artistic community, which accused the theatre of cowardice and self-censorship. MTC quickly reinstated the play, which only angered detractors more. The Catholic League denounced McNally and MTC and sent legions of picketers to the theatre nightly. The situation became so fraught that audience members had to walk through a metal detector before they could get to their seats.
Since then, the drama has been staged in various cities, both in America and elsewhere. More often than not, protests mushroom once more and authority figure inveigh against the offending work.
Why all the fuss? Because McNally’s version of the Passion Play imagines Jesus as a gay man living in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Now, the play’s legacy continues as a film, “Corpus Christi: Playing With Redemption,” which is released on DVD and VOD Oct. 14.
The documentary follows a touring production of the play as it interacts with audiences and protesters, while simultaneously telling the past history of the play, including archival footage of the 1998 Off-Broadway protests. It is co-directed by Nic Arnzen and James Brandon, who plays Jesus in the production.
The decision to make a film about their stage experience began organically, said Brandon.
“Usually, after every performance,” he said, “we were having these really intense dialogues with the audience. When we began touring the show, we just decided we’d start documenting it. It started with talk-backs and videos of us on our travels. We started filming our interactions with our audiences and the stories we’d share together. Then, of course, the protesters started showing up and we started talking to them. An extraordinary experience was happening before our eye. It was very clearly mirroring the dialogue we’d seen in society about gay issues.”
The tour began in 2006. Eventually the 108 Productions staging led to a 10th-anniversary production at Off-Broadway’s Rattlestick Theatre.
Early on, McNally was aware of the enterprise.
“After the first month of us performing the show, he found out about us,” told Brandon. “We got in touch with him. Nik Arnzen is the co-director. He wrote to Terrence to ask him if he could cast women in certain roles, because it was originally written for 13 young men. And Terrence gave his blessing on that.”
The artists eventually met McNally in 2008. “He’s been a pretty integral part of our journey every since,” said Brandon. “He’s a big part of why we continue.”
Brandon’s attitude toward the protesters who would often line up in front of the theatres where the production would play evolved over time.
“The people who protest it, it’s very clear that they protest from a point of view or not knowing anything about it,” he said. “That’s always the case 100% when we talk to protesters. They don’t know what they’re there for. They just hear ‘gay’ and ‘Jesus,’ and it freaks them out. For a while I understood that, but now I no longer do.”
To Brandon, the hysteria surrounding the title is confounding.
“I hate the word ‘controversy’ with this show, because to me nothing about it is controversial,” he argued. “I get there’s some stigma attached to it from the beginning. But it’s actually the most uncontroversial piece I’ve ever been involved in.”
The chasm between his perception and that of some of the general public is something he hopes the film can bridge.
“One of the reasons we decided it needed to be made was because of this idea of controversy, the idea that gay and Jesus cannot live together,” he continued. “We don’t believe that’s true. We’re not saying that Jesus is gay. All we’re saying is the LGBT community really should be allowed table space wherever they want. They should have that choice. I grew up being told I could not be gay and Catholic. And I left the Church and had to find my own way. This play has brought us all back. We think the film would be a great catalyst to expand the conversation even further.”