Passion Play

The fate of a local theater production raises worries about artistic freedom and more.
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Posted April 21, 2010 by MIKE MELENDEZ JR. in News

When student directors at Tarleton State University decided to stage a production of the play Corpus Christi, depicting a gay Jesus-like character named Joshua, I suspect they had no idea of the visceral reactions they would encounter. The controversial play, written by Texas native Terrence McNally, shows Joshua kissing Judas at a prom and performing a marriage between two other disciples. Subsequently, the directors and their drama professor have said that, after receiving threats, they decided to cancel the play due to concerns for the safety and security of the students.

Shortly after the cancellation in Stephenville, the Rose Marine Theater in Fort Worth offered to provide a “safe” place for the performance to take place. Adam Adolfo, executive director of Artes de la Rosa, said his organization wasn’t endorsing the play’s contents but was making a gesture of support for arts education. However, the theater’s board quickly rescinded that offer, apparently based on a threatening e-mail that was received.

The whole situation has made me angry — but the focus of my anger keeps changing. At first I was mad at those in our society who believe they are justified in forcing their own narrow worldview on everyone else. I got even more angry with the university and the Rose Marine board for acquiescing so readily, with little protest or resistance, to the threats. And finally, I got upset with the whole lesbian and gay community in North Texas for sitting on the sidelines during this disturbing series of events.

John Jordan Otte, the student director, has said that he chose the play to convey the emotional turmoil sometimes experienced by gay Christians. It’s understandable that some in our society find its content blasphemous. But shouldn’t artistic freedom mean that even those who believe differently about God, or don’t believe in God at all, also get their time on stage?

With the anniversary of the Columbine massacre this week and with other school shootings still fresh in our minds, I understand why the college and theater officials took the stances they did. But did they think about the message that sends? Opponents will be emboldened to use similar tactics to win other battles against freedom of expression. Do we allow them to win the war?

I also wonder where the gay and lesbian community support has been for this endeavor. Do we actually think that the act of hanging a banner at the Rainbow Lounge stating, “We were raided,” and ridiculously comparing our plight to the Stonewall Inn riots in New York actually equate with the struggle and danger that gays and lesbians in that city underwent beginning in 1969? Our freedoms come at a cost — and what have we been willing to pay here in North Texas?

Finally I asked myself, what would my stance be if it were an anti-Mexican-American, anti-Semitic, or homophobic play that some student group wanted to perform? And I had to admit, I would protest and attempt to have such a play shut down.

The difference is that I would not debase myself by threatening the offending parties with violence or bodily harm. After all, this is America, the land of the freedom to disagree. The other difference is that Corpus Christi does not vilify a race or particular group of people because of their religion or lifestyle. It would not incite anybody to resort to hate crimes.

As an American of Mexican heritage, I have been a recipient of discrimination and mindless bigotry. As a gay man, I have been demonized by the religious right, by those who would have me believe I am subhuman and not worthy of the civil rights afforded by the U.S. Constitution. Through the years, ignorant people have interrupted my conversations in Spanish to insist that I speak English because I am in the United States of America. The irony is that it’s in part because I am from the U.S. that I am free to speak in whatever language I wish and to love whomever I wish. I know that those freedoms were obtained with blood and by standing up against the bigots.

Acquiescing to the dictates of the ignorant was not an option for me when those people insisted I speak a particular language. Yes, I feared retaliation. But I believe Bob Marley said it well in one of his songs: “I would rather be a free man in my grave than a puppet on a string.”

Institutions like public colleges and nonprofit theaters, arguably, cannot go that far. And members of gay and lesbian groups have legitimate threats to their personal safety to consider. But all of us — college, theater, gay and straight groups, supporters of free expression — could have gone further than we have so far to stand up to narrow-minded purveyors of violence.

Kuetzalkoatl, alias Mike Melendez Jr., lives in Arlington.


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