BWW Interviews: Terrence McNally on CORPUS CHRISTI: PLAYING WITH REDEMPTION
The upcoming release of CORPUS CHRISTI: PLAYING WITH REDEMPTION, a documentary film focusing on Terrence McNally's controversial play CORPUS CHRISTI, may re-ignite the controversy that followed its initial 1998 opening in New York City at the Manhattan Theatre Club. McNally's play is a spiritual quest in which we are asked to imagine Jesus as a gay man living in Corpus Christi, Texas. The documentary follows a troupe of actors as they travel around the world on their initial 5-year journey, where voices of protest and support collide on one of the central issues facing the LGBT community: religion. Their work continues, even today.
The play originally opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1998 to intense protest and bomb threats. The show was first cancelled but then went on, albeit with some safety precautions taken. Personally threatened, the playwright Terrence McNally took it all in stride. The four-time Tony Award winning playwright is a master of his craft, having penned Broadway hits such as RAGTIME, MASTER CLASS and LOVE! VALOUR! COMPASSION! over his long career.
McNally is currently represented on Broadway with IT'S ONLY A PLAY which boasts some real star power: Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, Stockard Channing, F. Murray Abraham, Megan Mullally and Rupert Grint. It began performances on August 28 and will open officially at the Schoenfeld Theatre on October 9. Jack O'Brien is the director. It is having a fabulously successful run.
We had a chance to ask McNally some questions about his original motivation to undertake such a potentially explosive subject and his reaction to the documentary that will soon be released that details its journey. One of the things that surprises is that many of the performances take place in churches, sometimes with members of other churches outside picketing.
Breaking Glass Pictures will release the documentary CORPUS CHRISTI: PLAYING WITH REDEMPTION on DVD and VOD (iTunes, Comcast, Vubiquity) on October 14, 2014.
Here is our exchange with Terrence McNally:
What went through your mind when someone first proposed making a documentary of the revival of "CORPUS CHRISTI?"
A playwright is usually happy when he learns that someone wants to revive a play of his, especially a play that was overwhelmed by the controversy surrounding the original production. I never really "saw" my play until I attended a production in Chicago at the Bailiwick Theatre, a year later. I did not know of the California production directed by Nic Arnzen until friends told me about it. Had I known that Nic was going to cast it with men, women, young, old and multi-ethnicities, I don't know if I would have given him permission. When I did see it, I was overwhelmed by the majesty and universality of his vision for my play. He made me "see" my play anew all over again. Playwrights exist hoping for these revolutionary productions. They seldom happen. I am deeply grateful to Nic, 108 Productions and James Brandon.
Some demean CORPUS CHRISTI as blasphemy, a sort of gay PASSION play, but wasn't its purpose to bring love and understanding between all of God's people?
The play is a re-telling of Christ's life and PASSION in a vocabulary that makes it more accessible to gay men and women who had previously been excluded from any place in His story or the Christian religions. All men are divine. That is the simple, Universal meaning of my interpretation of His life.
Why this threatens so many devout Christians is something only they can answer. Fortunately, their numbers are declining. The movement towards more and more freedom for all people has an inevitable momentum. It's a good time for the best kind of human change.
Through excerpts from the play the documentary clearly tries to focus on the real message of the CORPUS CHRISTI. Do you think most Christians are ready to listen?
I think anyone who comes to know these remarkable people and actors through this heartfelt documentary will be anxious to see the play and ready to experience it with a more open heart and mind.
Many gay people come from deeply rooted religious backgrounds and continue to try to reconcile their beliefs with religious rejection, especially in conservative faiths. Do you think CORPUS CHRISTI helps the spiritually inclined with this quest?
Absolutely. Rejection makes us feel alone and disenfranchised. Inclusion allows us to express the love within each of us and feel the love of others. I never felt more connected to the world around me than when I was writing CORPUS CHRISTI. It was my spiritual journey: begun as a Catholic in a South Texas parochial school, sidetracked for many years, and begun again when I traveled in India and saw how profoundly religious day to day life was there. I came home wanting my spiritual life back.
An actor's perspective
The film documents the years that the actors and company toured the play. It wasn't steady work, but it was consistent.
A chat with the out actor David Pevsner provides some real insights from the cast's perspective.
Pevsner is a nice Jewish boy from Skokie, IL and while the Christian parables and stories were not familiar to him at first, he and the cast soon embraced their message of tolerance and inclusion. "When I first read it, I just didn't get this play, but as we worked on it, McNally's ingenious structuring was a revelation to me, and helped bridge the gap between my own beliefs and being gay.
"The play is Universal in its message, and as we performed it we saw lots of tears from the audience. The ability to find a way to reconciliate your spirtiual life with your gay identity is cathartic," he observed.
"We ended up doing CORPUS CHRISTI all over the world, but we also took it to cities that we felt really needed to hear its message. Along with showing the documentary, we continue to perform the show as a part of the "I AM Love" campaign to help fight the bullying epidemic."
Following up on the film
The film has produced some continuing efforts to reconcile the religous divide. The I AM Love Campaign centers around the play and documentary, exploring where (if at all) the LGBT community finds itself at the table of faith and why they would want to return. The I AM Love Campaign's mission is to change the story on religious bullying and homophobia, in all ages and walks of life, by first learning to love the self.
PLAYING WITH REDEMPTION and the I AM Love Campaign add a new dimension to the conversation that my play continues to provoke, and I look forward to CORPUS CHRISTI starting many more conversations around the country." - Terrence McNally
Photo of Terrence McNally courtesy of Breaking Glass Pictures.
From This Author Larry Murray