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At the April 5 staging of Corpus Christiat the First Christian Church of Orange, a last-minute change of venue appeared to affect attendance: The audience barely filled the first three church pews.
The cast and crew were likely expecting a bigger audience, but their Chapman University performance was unexpectedly canceled after being scheduled nearly two months ago, director Nic Arnzen says.
Corpus Christi is a famously controversial play that deals with homosexuality, family and spirituality. But to Ronald Farmer, dean of the Wallace All Faiths Chapel at Chapman, a theater production portraying a "gay Jesus," a "wife-beating Joseph" and "brief nudity" pushed the envelope a little further than he was comfortable with.
Farmer describes the chapel's philosophy as "open and affirming," in that it aims to be more accepting of practices often condemned by mainstream religion, such as homosexuality. The dean—who admits he hasn't seen the show or read the script, but did read publicity materials about the play—put the kibosh on the planned production just 10 days before it was scheduled to go on at Fish Interfaith Center on Chapman's campus.
The Los Angeles-based Arnzen says he feels strongly that the show has been censored. He believes Farmer jumped to condemn its content without giving it a chance.
Arnzen's production has played in both theaters and religious venues in the past two years. The troupe, 108 Productions, has two versions of the show, one of which is toned down, with less profanity and nudity, specifically for performances in houses of worship. Arnzen says he would have been willing to put on the milder version at Chapman's interfaith center.
"[Chapman and Farmer] say they want an open dialogue, but this raises a lot of suspicions," he says. "By the way it was handled, it clearly shows they are not ready." Arnzen says he tried to contact Farmer, but his calls went unanswered.
Farmer objects to any insinuation that he is not an accepting pastor, noting that he and his wife have each presided over same-sex commitment ceremonies. He also points out that the Fish Interfaith Center has held discussions of homosexuality, gender and religion yearly since it opened in 2004. Farmer says he didn't know about the booking, which went through a student representative of the chapel, until three or four student religious groups, led by a chapter of the national organization the Newman Catholic Fellowship, voiced opposition to the production in mid-March.
The publicity materials Farmer then requested from 108 Productions said Corpus Christi (which means "body of Christ" in Latin, and also is the town in Texas where the play is set) is "peppered by bawdy jokes" and "profanity" and described its portrayal of Joseph as "a wife-beater."
As a biblical scholar and historian, Farmer was especially irked by the play's characterization of Joseph. He says he canceled the production out of respect for religious groups sharing the interfaith center, of which, according to its website, there are at least 15.
"The fact that it's shared sacred space, it's a little different even than a church because it's, in a sense, owned by all religious groups," he says.
Corpus Christi, written by four-time Tony Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally, is no stranger to controversy. When McNally first tried to stage it in New York City in 1997, the show was canceled because of numerous death and bomb threats, the issuance of a fatwa by a British Muslim group, and thousands of angry protesters, he says.
McNally, who lives in New York, says he wrote the play not to offend, but to challenge the Christian Right's claim on the story of Jesus. "[Gays} have been shut out from that story for so long," he says.
James Brandon, the Los Angeles-based actor who plays the Jesus character, named Joshua in the play, says the show needs to be seen to be understood in context. "If we're portraying a gay Jesus, we're portraying a man who's flawed but still divine," Brandon says.
The show presented on April 5 was the edited version. The minimalist staging, which included 13 actors and actresses, at its most provocative featured male-on-male kissing, the word "shit" and on-set costume changes.
Church pastor Stan Smith says he allowed the company to stage the play there after he read the script. "It's something that definitely pushes our boundaries," he says. "But I think that's healthy sometimes. It doesn't mean that someone has to abandon their faith in order to see something from an alternative viewpoint."
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