Student Production of McNally's Corpus Christi Canceled in Texas

News   Student Production of McNally's Corpus Christi Canceled in Texas
A Texas University has canceled an in-class production of four-time Tony Award winner Terrence McNally's controversial play Corpus Christi, which depicts a gay Christ-like figure and his male apostles.
Terrence McNally
Terrence McNally Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Tarleton State University directing student John Otte, who identified himself as gay and Christian to a student paper, was to stage an abbreviated version of the play as part of an advanced directing course. The production drew protest, including calls and e-mails to the office of University president F. Dominic Dottavio.

The non-university sponsored presentation was not open to the public and Otte was to have paid for all costs directly associated with the performance, according to a letter issued by Dottavio. Corpus Christi was scheduled be performed along with selections from eight other plays including Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.

The University initially defended Otte's rights to present the work as an assignment that was "not intended for the public anymore than a student’s math assignment;" however, all eight presentations scheduled for March 27 were canceled by the professor amid safety and security concerns. The performances will not be rescheduled.

Dottavio previously stated that the University had been in direct contact with Texas A&M University System, who had "made it clear to us that this is an unambiguous Freedom of speech (First Amendment) issue... The student who chose to direct excerpts from the play enjoys his right tofree speech. This right is protected by law even if the speech is offensive to others. But, again, it is important to understand that this is not the university’s speech; it is the student’s speech. When actions and words are particularly offensive, the freedoms we enjoy can often lead to lively debate. As an educator, I believe the debate should be conducted with civility and respect."

He also added, "My personal reaction is that I see no artistic or redeeming quality in the work. I believe, as many have opined, that it is offensive, crude, and irreverent. It is my sense that there are significant numbers of faculty, staff and students at Tarleton who share my views of the play." Texas Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst also weighed in on the work in a release: "Every citizen is entitled to the freedom of speech, but no one should have the right to use government funds or institutions to portray acts that are morally reprehensible to the vast majority of Americans," he said.

In a statement released March 27, the Lt. Governor added, "The cancellation of the play, Corpus Christi, by the university was the right thing to do. While I'm a strong defender of free speech, we must also protect the rights and reasonable expectations of Texas taxpayers and how their money is used. A play that is completely contrary to the standards of decency and moral beliefs of the vast majority of Texans should not be performed using any state resources, especially by an institution of higher learning."

McNally countered in the following statement: "Corpus Christi is a play about God's unconditional love for all men and women, even those who would prevent you from seeing it. Gay men and women have taken their place at the table of faith and they are not giving up their seats to anyone. I am proud the students at Tarleton State University wanted to perform my play; I am saddened the administration chose not to support them."

Corpus Christi, set in modern-day Texas, was met with outcry from religious groups in 1998 when the Manhattan Theatre Club premiered the work Off-Broadway. McNally, who hails from Corpus Christi, TX, refers to his Christ-like character as Joshua in the play, which also depicts a same-sex marriage. Joe Mantello staged the production that earned the Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards for Best Play.

McNally earned Tony Awards for his plays Master Class and Love! Valour! Compassion!, as well as the books to the musicals Kiss of the Spider Woman and Ragtime. His works also include The Ritz; Frankie and Johnny at the Claire de Lune; Lips Together, Teeth Apart; Deuce; Some Men; Dedication or the Stuff of Dreams; The Lisbon Traviata; The Rink; A Man of No Importance; and The Full Monty. The Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. is currently staging a trio of his plays (Master Class, The Golden Age and The Lisbon Traviata).

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