What could cause a university to cancel public performances of a play portraying the life of Jesus, written nearly 20 years ago by multiple Tony Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally? He summed up the play thusly for BroadwayWorld: “All men are divine. That is the simple, universal meaning of my interpretation of [Jesus’s] life.”?
The university in question is Mennonite school Eastern Mennonite University, and in the play Jesus is gay.
The play was meant to be the culmination of four years of education for Christian Parks. It is Parks’ Senior Play, the practical portion of Parks’ senior thesis, a requirement in the Theater program worth 3 full credits. On the written portion of the thesis, Parks received an A. By all appearances Parks is a deeply involved and beloved member of Eastern Mennonite University’s community. Take a glance at EMU’s Facebook page and you’ll see Parks at the front of an MLK solidarity march, leading a gospel choir for a university-wide chapel service,and narrating a publicity video for prospective students. Over on Eastern Mennonite Seminary’s page, see Parks preaching for a morning service full of pastors.
There was every indication that Parks’ rendition of Corpus Christi would be moving, insightful, and well-attended. And yet, EMU is a Mennonite University, and in the play Jesus is gay.
The play is hardly a stranger to controversy. 17 years ago, the play’s original producers nearly pulled the show altogether for fear that protestors would follow through on violent threats. According to the New York Times, on opening night there were about 200 protestors:
“The Rev. Benedict J. Groeschel, of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal on East 156th Street in the Bronx, led the protesters in prayers and song from the spot where they were corralled about 100 yards from the theater. ‘We want this terrible blasphemy to be removed from public life,’ Father Groeschel said.”
But that was then, in 1998, when Corpus Christi opened the day after young gay man Matthew Shepard was strung from a fence in Wyoming and left to die; as Liberation Theologian James Cone has pointed out, much like Jesus was hung from a tree.
In 2008, a revival in New York saw an opening night with not a single protestor. According to Jason Zinoman,who reviewed the revival for the New York Times, it’s an earnest and faithful play, one that has hard-won sentiment, and a wit rarely seen in the Bible. As one of the characters says, this is an “old and familiar story. There are no tricks up our sleeves, no malice in our hearts.”
But of course, EMU is a Mennonite university, and in the play Jesus is gay.
So what is it that could stop a Black, queer, genderqueer, talented and faithful, peacemaking leader, beloved community member from performing an earnest and faithful play for the public about the life of Jesus written by a four time Tony Award-winning playwright for their senior performance?
EMU is a Mennonite university, and in the play Jesus is gay.