James Brandon Speaks About "CORPUS CHRISTI: PLAYING WITH REDEMPTION"
Playwright Terrence McNally has a body of work that is no less than spectacular. Since 1964, he has received four Tony Awards, an Emmy Award, and several other accolades for his resume of plays and other writings. 2014 proved to be an exciting year for McNally: His newest work "Mothers and Sons", which opened on Broadway in March of this year, was nominated for a Tony for Best Play, with Tyne Daly being nominated for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role. It's not enough to just say that many of McNally's plays have gay themes. It's more accurate to say that he has written fully-realized, living-and-breathing stories of gay men's lives through the decades. Most of McNally's plays have received overwhelming praise both from his peers in the theater community and from the masses. However, McNally's 1997 passion play "Corpus Christi" became more famous (Some would say "infamous".) for protests rather than for the play itself. "Corpus Christi" was McNally's dramatization of the story of Jesus and the Apostles, depicting them as gay men in 1950's Texas and featuring a same-sex marriage. Largely fueled by rumors of overt sexual content in the play which didn't even exist, the announcement of the off-Broadway opening of "Corpus Christi" was greeted by passionate protesters who labeled it as "blasphemous" and "anti-Catholic". Citing safety reasons, the play was withdrawn. However, it actually did see an opening on October 13, 1998. The play closed on November 29.
Fast forward to 2006. An energetic and passionate group of actors decided to resurrect "Corpus Christi" at a small church in North Hollywood, California. The play was directed by Nic Arnzen, with James Brandon in the role of Joshua, the Jesus-inspired character. What was planned as a six-show run became an unexpected and inspiring journey which lasted for years, and changed the lives of its participants. The play became a mission. Arnzen and Brandon decided to create a documentary about their experiences with the staging of the play and its reception as they took it around the world. The movie became "Corpus Christi: Playing with Redemption", which had its first sneak preview at the Atlanta Film Festival on May 7, 2011. The life-affirming message behind the passion play "Corpus Christi" has stayed the same through the years. Similarly, however, the reactionary drama experienced by the current company sadly seemed to echo the 1998 New York City premiere as well. Brandon told me, "On our journey, we've had some intense moments where we even considered not doing it. We don't want to put anyone in danger. It's a play, just a play... and not worth 'this'!" He points out that the troupe encountered potential danger in places where it was least expected, such as when a sneak preview of a version of the film was shown at the Castro Theater in San Francisco in 2012. Brandon recalls, "How could that be? We are in the mecca of the gay world... and we are getting protested here. It just goes to show that it exists everywhere; it doesn't matter where you are. We can say how all of us are progressive and that we are moving forward. All of that is true... but there is still deep-seated homophobia that still needs to be addressed. And that is very clear to me in the journey that we've experienced. It doesn't shock me that these things still happen, and that's why the mission must continue".
James Brandon spoke with me about "Corpus Christi: Playing With Redemption": the movie and the mission.
JR: Hi James. Thank you for speaking with me. Congratulations about "Corpus Christi: Playing With Redemption" coming to DVD. So, first off: Where did your interest in the play "Corpus Christi" originally come from?
JB: It was back in 2006. Wow, it's incredible that it's been eight years! I did the play with my friend Nic Arnzen, who was director. The Church he was attending at the time asked him to do a play, and he thought "Corpus Christi" would be a great one to do, because he had done it before. He thought it would be the perfect place to do the play, because it was a Church. He wanted it to be a light, fun experience. So, he asked a lot of his friends to audition. I was very resistant at first, because I read the play and didn't "get it" fully. I certainly "get it" now! For me, "Corpus Christi" was way more religious than I thought it might be. I had never heard of it before this point. I didn't know anything about the 1998 turmoil in New York City. All I knew was that it was about a "gay Jesus". I thought it sounded fun and interesting, and thought it would be more sensational. I read it and found it to be more like the story I grew up with, because I was raised Catholic-- and I didn't like these "ghost stories"! (Laughs) I was resistant to the Catholic religion. It had nothing to do with me not having a connection. I think it's a beautiful outlet for people to experience God's love, and it doesn't just come in one specific form. But for me, I was being told to feel a certain way, and I was always very resistant to that. I never liked being TOLD how to feel. I like to experience it on my own. And, that was coupled with the fact that I was gay. I didn't know it then, but in retrospect I understand why I probably wasn't connected to it at all. So, when I first read the play, it didn't resonate with me. But, I decided I would audition anyway. I originally auditioned for the part of Judas, which I learned I was clearly not right for at all! (Laughs) Nic saw that too... and he asked if I'd read the part of Joshua, who is the Jesus character. That night, he cast me in that role... and it just fit. Nic saw that in me in the beginning, and I didn't even see it in myself. I am grateful for that, because when we jumped in and started rehearsals, I learned that it was a really special piece. It just grew from there.
JR: Wow! So, where was the church that this production took place?
JB: It was The Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) of the Valley, in North Hollywood, California. It was part of the whole MCC community, which was founded by Reverend Troy Perry. It is just a tiny little church in the middle of the Valley, and maybe they have 50 congregants. It is just a strange little area of town, and just a strange little building-- and incredibly beautiful. It's just a sweet little community. That's why it has been this journey: The whole foundation of it was built on true humbleness and a true desire to simply tell the story of the play. We didn't do it at some huge venue in L.A. just to get publicity, and get noticed, and get reviews, and get "seen"... None of that at all was in our consciousness when we started this. We were all there because we believed in the story, and believed in what the play was all about. It was founded on that. It has that at its core, no matter where we take the show. We always go back to that... and I honestly believe that's why the show has sustained as long as it has. We were just meant to do six performances of this play at this little church, and we didn't even think anybody would ever even hear about it. How could they? We were in a tiny church in the middle of the Valley. (Laughs) And it just clicked. It was magical.
JR: That's great to hear! Now, "Corpus Christi" has been described again and again as "controversial", "infamous", notorious", etc. They are words we throw around a lot in arts and entertainment. In your opinion, do you feel that the play itself was "controversial"? Or, was the so-called controversy based upon people's REACTIONS to the play-- mostly, the concept of a "gay Jesus"?
JB: I feel very strongly about this actually. I absolutely detest and hate the word "controversial" when it is associated with this play. I think it's the furthest thing from it. I guess that if that is how we can partly bring attention to the play, then I've embraced that part of it through the years. But for a long time, we would not use that word in ANY of our productions. It's just not true. The only way it became that way was because of the media sensationalizing the play. On top of that, it became a social turmoil because people hear the terms "gay" and "Jesus", and they didn't do any informed research as to what we were really about. They hear that, and they just shut down and they're done. Trust me, I have eight years of experience with it. I've seen it. It's a shame, because people will put that label on it without having the experience of the play. I truly feel that people who saw the play because they believed it was controversial had an experience after seeing it... and now, hopefully, they will get to see this film and have an even more personal experience with it. That's one of our main intentions with doing this. Hopefully they will realize, "Wait a minute. This is not what we thought it was! This is actually what the teachings are about... viewed through the lens of someone who is a child of God. Why not?" I think that if you look back on history, and if you believe in Jesus and that He existed, there are parallels. His teachings at the time were incredible controversial. Yet, He found that peace and love were the things that moved it forward. And they became the most known teachings in our universe. Who doesn't know about Jesus' teachings? I believe that those are the similar parallels to an experience like this. Terrence wrote the play because he grew up in a very similar household as I did: Catholic and conservative. He didn't relate to the teachings, but he wanted to feel connected to them. He thought, "Why not? Why not make this experience for me and for people that I know and love, and my brothers and sisters, and let them have a Christian experience that they felt they couldn't have, but now can-- if it's viewed through THEIR eyes?" That's what this is about. Anything which anyone else puts on it is their own preconceived idea, without having the experience of it. We always invite the protesters to sit down and watch it, which they never do. We want to have an educated dialogue with the protesters afterward, but they never come in. Not one. I long for the day when they will come in and watch it and say, "Oh, wow! OK, I get it now...!" I think that Terrence, in writing this play in 1998, opened up the most important dialogue of my generation and of the LGBT movement as we see it today. I also think that the reason for this was because the play was so "controversial". We talk about gay marriage today like we talk about putting butter on toast. It's just everyday language now. At the time, when "Corpus Christi" opened and these things were coming up, they weren't being talked about as they are now. He really ignited the current conversations we were having today, through this experience. Terrence wasn't the only one, of course... but certainly at the time, he was a huge voice in that. I think that when you're a visionary, as he is, and you are saying things that people aren't ready to hear, you create controversy for people. That's what stuck with this experience, in a way. But we don't live in that space at all. We address it but do not live in it. That's not at all a part of what this is.
JR: You are right. When people don't understand something, they either mock it or avoid it. I knew, even before you told me, that there probably wasn't a single one of those protesters who took you up on the offer to see the play. Their agenda is likely larger than the play itself.
JB: From our experience, it seems like the protesters don't even know what they are doing. They know they're protesting, but I don't think they understand why. They are just THERE. From what we learned, they don't even know what the play is about. They just know that it is "wrong" for them... so they just show up and protest. You know what? I love it. We all love it. Every time I talk to them, I say, "I am passionate, and I believe as much in the story that we are telling as much as YOU are passionate about what YOU believe in. So let's just meet right there. Can we talk?" Sometimes it's "Yes", sometimes it's "Not at all". I believe in protest. I believe in standing up for what you believe in. I believe there needs to be an open dialogue for change to really happen. Just standing out there fighting with nobody listening will not do anything. That's not what it's about. If the play and the new movie continue to create a dialogue within the faith communities-- which I think it can-- then I think this is why we should continue. It's important to keep the dialogue open right now. I really believe that this is the leading edge of the LGBT community: Faith Equality. I think we are coming together as a community more so than ever before, and I believe it's because we are being acknowledged as equal citizens. As that continues to rise, there is more that is going to be desired within our community-- and that comes from spirit. It doesn't mean you have to be Catholic, or Buddhist, or whatever-- but it means that there's more than just getting drunk and having sex. (Laughs) I mean, all of that is a beautiful part of our community. I get it. But there's more to it... and I think that there's a lot of people craving that "more"... and they are not sure how to get it. They don't feel they can go to a church or go pray, because they've never been taught that they can. I think that's the next part of the movement. I really do!
JR: Some people who are not members of our community, or allies of our community, may have a hard time believing that GLBT people can even BE spiritual, given the long history of some organized religions' hostility towards our community. Yet most of the GLBT's who I know are very spiritual and even quite religious.
JB: I do think that a large part of it is that we have had to find our own way in the world, It's one thing to grow up and be raised in a certain religion and to follow that, and live in that, and believe in that your entire life. That's a beautiful way for some people. But if you are raised in a way where you follow that, and live in that, and believe in that-- and are ALSO taught that you don't belong there, and that you are a sinner, AND have all that dogmatic stuff being thrown at you-- then you really do sort of go on the journey of Jesus... or Buddha... or Mohammed. They all went to a place to find the peace and love within. I think that a lot of homosexuals have had to do that, because they have been told they don't belong. How do they find that? The only way to do that is to go on "the journey within" and find it for yourself. I do think that is the highest level of spirit that you can have. That IS your connection! It is just going to get stronger as we get more united as a community.
JR: I look forward to that. Now, just the idea of a "gay Jesus" character is enough to get a lot of people infuriated. In fact, just the idea of Jesus even having ANY kind of sexual feelings gets many people so worked up. In your opinion, why is this?
JB: The only way I can answer that is through my own experience: my eight years of doing this, and from hearing from so many people who don't believe in this. In the beginning, sometimes you just wanted to have a conversation about it. Sometimes it was good, and most often it wasn't... because people are very adamant about what they believe. All I can deduce from all of that is that "their" Jesus is beyond sexuality. "Their" Jesus is the highest form of sacredness... kind of like an untouchable. He was above all of those human feelings: the essence of spirit. I get e-mails often-- almost daily, actually-- from people who say that they love gay people but who don't "approve" of sin, and who want to help us "work through" our sins, because "we are all born with a sin and this is ours to work through"; there is that kind of dogmatic experience there that people still hold on to. I usually answer these by saying: If you believed that Jesus lived, how could He go through His journey and experience these high emotions, but no sexual feelings? That's one of the most basic, fundamental human emotions that one can have. And, it's a beautiful way to express oneself. I can't imagine how He could NOT have those. Maybe He worked through these emotions and never acted upon them, but how could we ever know that? This is how I interpreted that through my character's journey in the play. It's not about Jesus being gay; it's about having the sexuality as a catalyst for a hugely beautiful, spiritual experience. That's what his journey is in the show, and I can't imagine if Jesus lived that He didn't have some sort of similar experience. It reminds me when people use Bible quotes to support their feelings-- and especially to use those quotes against gay people. There's that one quote from Leviticus which everyone uses, "Thou shalt not lie with man...". As we bring up in the play: If you are going to choose that prohibition, then you have to live by all 600 of them. You can't just choose one, and you are not going to choose ALL of them... because they are all kind of ridiculous at this point. So, to me, when people pick and choose how it's "supposed to be", it doesn't add up. That's why I think people get so up and arms over it... because not only does it put a "spin" on their savior, but it just blows their mind. It's way too much for them to even get into. This story of "Corpus Christi" and the documentary about the play is that EVERYONE can have this experience of going on a journey and finding yourself.
JR: While we are on the subject of the documentary: What was the most personally rewarding or cathartic moment you had while making this film? I'm sure there were many!
JB: One of the reasons why we even decided to make this documentary was because we went into this play thinking that it would only be for six performances, and that we'd all have a great time and then move on with our lives on to the next thing. Even in those first performances that we were doing, we as a company were being changed. We could not define it as clearly back then as we can today, but we were certainly being changed and being healed of old wounds. Each one of us in the play comes from a very different background-- different ages, races, preferences, religions-- and we were feeling those changes as we were doing the play and were reaching audiences, and then afterwards having connections with strangers like we've never had before. That was the catalyst for the documentary in the beginning: "Let's just pick up a camera and start shooting this experience." It was special. We couldn't put it into words yet, but we knew that something was happening which we felt the urge to capture. We started sharing our own personal stories, and really experiencing some deep healing changes. And, we started hearing from audiences that they were experiencing cathartic changes as well. It seemed like something was reborn within everyone in the theater at that moment. THAT was something we truly never expected... and it just kept building, and building, and building. The only reason why we continued was because of our audiences. We still don't get paid for this. We just believe in the story so much that we do it whenever we are asked to do it. If the basic necessities are provided for us, we WILL show up and do it... because we love it so much. Audiences believed in it so much, which helped us move it forward. So, I guess I can say that the most memorable experience for me in making the film was realizing the new hope in humanity. I feel that we all have the same story: We just want to be loved. You start to realize how small this world is... and that we are all in it together. If we could all look at the world together that way, how amazing that would be! That's what I learned.
JR: Terrence McNally appears in the documentary. What was the it like when you reached out to him?
JB: Early on, Nic reached out to Terrence and informed him that he wanted to cast women in some of the roles, and asked if that was OK. The play was originally written for 13 young men. Terrence immediately said to go for it, and he was thrilled that this was happening. So, we did it, and opened the show, and within the third performance, someone who was directly connected to Terrence saw the show and called him. He told Terrence, "You have to see the show. This is what you wanted to write!" So, he heard about it right away, and started following us and writing to us. At the time, he was battling lung cancer and was really quite sick. He was in and out of the hospital, and was going through a lot. Terrence has said that knowing that the performances were happening-- and knowing about the positive reactions from the audience-- were part of his healing. It helped him move forward, knowing that his play was finally being seen in a way that he really meant it to be seen at the time he wrote it. At the time he wrote it, it never really COULD be seen because the experience was so tumultuous. After that, we got connected to his husband Tom Kirdahy. We were in Dublin in 2008 at The Dublin Gay Theater Festival... and Tom came out to surprise us. We had never met him before. He came backstage in a puddle of tears. It was the most magical moment. We all started crying. It was our deeper connection to Terrence. At that moment, Tom became Producer and helped us bring the show back to New York in 2008, for its 10 year anniversary. That's when Terrence saw our show for the first time. He has been a huge supporter of it ever since... and he has helped us in so many ways. It's been a blessing. He was a huge helper in making this film, and he helped us shape it. From his perspective, it's been great that the show that he loves so much-- and was so heartbroken at how it was first received back in 1998-- was back. It was written from such a place of inclusiveness and love and spirituality. For it to be received with such vitriol at the time was heartbreaking for him. I can't imagine how it must have been to have something you created-- your baby-- to be stomped all over. The death threats were very real, and the actors and audience had to walk through metal detectors. There were bomb-sniffing dogs. It was a jarring experience, and even Terrence said he could never even watch the play because there had been protesters screaming in the background. It was just not at all what he wanted. He never thought the play would see the light of day again. He just thought it would disappear because it was never seen for what he knew it could be seen for. He has said to me many times that our production was the catalyst for him to feel redeemed again for the piece. It was a beautiful thing to be a part of.
JR: That is really moving to hear. Now, lastly, what else are you currently working on?
JB: In this process, we created the "I Am Love Campaign", which is meant to create a further dialogue on everything we talked about: faith equality, religion-based bias within the community, homophobia... all the things that "Corpus Christi" and now this film addresses. The campaign goes into the community for a weekend, and over the course of a weekend, we do performances of the play, show screenings of the play, and culminate in town hall dialogue with local leaders, community leaders, religious leaders, and gay leaders talking about issues that come up within the play-- and how it is connected with their community. But also, it addresses specific issues that the community is dealing with, and how to collaborate together on a peaceful resolution to them. We know that when we go in and do the play, it brings up a lot of stuff for people. We always do talkbacks after every show, but we eventually would have to go back home. It was hard, because we knew a lot of dialogue was started, but we wanted it to continue and didn't know how. That's how the "I Am Love Campaign" was started, so that hopefully once we leave, the dialogue continues. We plan to go to a dozen or more cities with this campaign tour so that people can see the play, have an experience themselves, and help create peaceful dialogue within their community about all these issues. But, we also have to raise the money for it-- and that's where we are at this point. We are reaching out to different organizations to raise money, and hope it all comes into fruition. We'll see! If it was meant to be, then everything will show up for it. Personally, beyond that, I have written a book which which will probably come out within the next year. It is a mediation book about my experiences playing "gay Jesus": what I have learned from it, and how I can pass that on to others. Lots of great things have come from this. The possibilities are limitless!
JR: The possibilities are always limitless with inspiration, dedication, and spirit! Thank you James!
"Corpus Christi: Playing With Redemption" premieres on DVD on October 14th. Visit www.BreakingGlassPictures.com for more information. Learn more about the "I Am Love Campaign" at www.IAmLoveCampaign.org.