FOR American gay culture this month marks a doubly somber anniversary.
Ten years ago, on Oct. 12, Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, died in a Colorado hospital almost a week after two men viciously beat him and left him tied to a fence near Laramie, Wyo. That same night Terrence McNally’s play “Corpus Christi,” about 13 gay men who perform the story of Jesus, had its final preview performance at Manhattan Theater Club; due to weeks of protests and bomb threats, ticket holders had to pass through metal detectors before taking their seats.
In retrospect the events seem linked. Beyond the coincidence of timing, both were seen as stark reminders of lingering homophobia, and like Mr. McNally’s play the events in Laramie eventually found life in the theater. Shortly after Mr. Shepard’s murder the Tectonic Theater Project created “The Laramie Project,” a documentary drama about the crime and its aftermath that has been produced almost 2,000 times.
Now a new epilogue for “The Laramie Project” and a new production of “Corpus Christi,” which opened last week at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, are extending the stories that began a decade ago, making Mr. Shepard’s murder and Mr. McNally’s script once again part of the nation’s conversation about gay America.
Moisés Kaufman, artistic director of Tectonic, said the issues in his play are just as relevant now as they were in 1998. “These last 10 years have not been the best 10 years for social change — not only for the gay and lesbian community, but also for any issue of social justice,” he said. “As an artist I feel like the question is: ‘What can theater do now in America? How can we play a role in the national dialogue?’ ”
In “The Laramie Project” most of the script is taken directly from Tectonic’s interviews with Laramie citizens, so an actor playing, say, an older gay man from Wyoming is speaking a real man’s actual words.
“Learning lines uttered by other people, and realizing those lines articulate something about yourself and your community, is a profound exercise,” Mr. Kaufman said. “It points out the similarity between Laramie and the rest of the country.”
Judy Shepard, Matthew Shepard’s mother, said that “The Laramie Project” forces performers and audience members to discuss cultural conflict. She said the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which she co-founded, gets e-mail messages all the time, even from gay people, “saying the play opened their eyes to things — especially that people have a right to their opinions, even if you don’t agree with them.”
Recently the piece has also become a living history lesson. “High school students and young college students are especially affected by it,” Ms. Shepard said. “They didn’t realize what was happening in 1998, so for them it isn’t a rerun.”
But eventually the play’s events could seem so distant that they become irrelevant. That’s why Tectonic re-interviewed many of its original subjects last month. The transcripts will be shaped into an epilogue for all future productions.
“My hope is that the epilogue will continue to shed light on where we are,” Mr. Kaufman said. “What has changed? What has not changed? In that way it continues the dialogue.”
With “Corpus Christi,” which hasn’t played Manhattan since its controversial premiere, the challenge may be fostering the conversations that Mr. McNally originally intended. “I’m glad it’s coming back, because it was not seen fairly,” he said. “If you’re going to have a controversy about your work, it should at least accurately reflect what the work is about.”
The original outcry began in 1998 when The New York Post reported that the play would depict a gay Jesus having onstage sex with his apostles. That was not true — the show features gay, modern-day Texans gathering to celebrate and portray the story of Jesus (renamed Joshua), but there are no overtly sexual scenes.
At the time, however, the rumors turned the play into a tabloid sensation. Religious leaders led a news media campaign against the show, while Mr. McNally and several employees of Manhattan Theater Club received anonymous threats.
The theater initially canceled the production, though it was reinstated after much protest. “By that point the play was perceived as a freedom-of-speech play, which was not the issue I was addressing when I sat down to write it,” Mr. McNally said. “I was trying to invite gay men and women back to the table of spirituality. We’ve been made to feel we are sinners and that we have no business in the story.”
But if the play’s spiritual aspect was overshadowed during its premiere, it has been integral to the revival by the Los Angeles theater company, 108 Productions. For one thing, the company first performed “Corpus Christi” in a church.
This production (which features women in some roles) opened in 2006 at the Metropolitan Community Church in the Valley in West Hollywood. It then toured several California cities and as far away as Edinburgh and Dublin.
So far the trip to New York has stirred no controversy. “To know that it opened to such intense backlash — that it was automatically deemed blasphemous — is incredible to me,” said James Brandon, who has played Joshua since 2006. “In our experience we’ve been completely embraced.”Mr. Brandon said that without the fog of outrage the play’s religious themes become clearer. “If you put a label on it, it is a ‘gay Jesus play,’ but in my eyes it’s much bigger than that,” he said. “It’s about recognizing that all people are the same. Gay men and women are just as divine as everyone else.”
Love your way... you are Brilliant!
Alan Davidson is the author of the Free report
"Body Breakthroughs for Life Breakthroughs: How to Peak Your
Physical, Emotional, Mental, Moral, and Spiritual IQs for a
available at www.throughyourbody.com
Alan is also the author of Body Brilliance:
Mastering Your Five Vital Intelligences (IQs)