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Controversial ‘Corpus Christi’

Austin Theatre Project (ATP), Austin’s newest theatre company, has chosen Corpus Christi, a play by Terrence McNally, to be its inaugural production. The play, set in Corpus Christi, Texas during the 1950s, tells the story of a young gay man (Joshua) who suffers harassment and bullying from the townspeople. He leaves home, and when he returns, is betrayed by his best friend, Judas. The play is a re-imagining of the story of Christ and the apostles as gay men, and borrows some details from McNally’s own life. The playwright, a gay man, grew up in Corpus Christi in the 1950s.

Corpus Christi is a story of what it’s like to be different,” says Barbara Schuler, producing director of Austin Theatre Project. “It’s about unconditional love, tolerance, acceptance – all the things we all need to have in our lives.”

Some individuals, however, have difficulty seeing past religious figures being portrayed as homosexuals, and cannot get to the universal themes the script means to address. As a result, the play has previously met with some controversy in Texas. In 2010, a student production of the play had been scheduled at Tarleton State University, but political and public pressure caused the presenters to cancel the show before its one scheduled performance.

An article on dated March 30, 2010 quotes a letter written by Steven Hotze stating that Governor Perry and Ray Sullivan, Perry’s Chief of Staff, heard about the production, discussed the situation, and shortly thereafter “the necessary steps were taken to ensure that its performance was canceled,” inferring a connection between the two events.

In the same article, a student at Tarleton is quoted as saying the planned production resulted in “hundreds of vile, hateful emails and phone calls that got increasingly volatile as the week went on.”

A Texas Tribune article of March 29, 2010 quotes a statement by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst as follows: “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 majority of Americans.”

Schuler invites a more open viewpoint. “We’re hoping that people will leave the theater with the attitude that they should talk to the people they came there with and be open to hearing other people’s opinions,” she says.

Austin generally embraces diversity, so let’s hope ATP’s production will meet with a less volatile reception. Works such as this can promote the discussion of tolerance and understanding only when people are allowed to hear and evaluate their messages for themselves.