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The company of "Corpus Christi." (l to r; front row) Benaiah Adesoji, Byron Ard; (back row) Alastair Motylinski, Stephanie Yu, Nat M. Sherwood, Mitchell Aaron Mulkey, Desmond Leach, Nathaniel Bush Jr., Kat Cupp, Xenon Winslow, Philip Guadagno, Naveed Moeed, Chris Acevedo.
June signals the beginning of Pride Month, and what better way to celebrate than with a timeless story that has been told over and over and over….and over again. Corpus Christi (translated to Body of Christ) tells the story of Jesus Christ, from birth to death. However, the story is not as traditional as it has been shared throughout history, and it currently being told with even further nuance by downtown Raleigh's St. John's Metropolitan Community Church.
Written in 1997 by Terrence McNally, Corpus Christi depicts Jesus Christ and the Apostles as gay men living in modern-day Corpus Christi, Texas. Since the play's inception, its concepts have become the center focus of politics and religion, but this production is not afraid to push the boundary further by begging the question: What if the universal story of Christ was relatable to all, regardless of sexuality and gender?
Despite the show's depiction of inclusivity and forgiving love, there has been much controversy over this story being brought to light on stage. Outcries from religious communities have called it "a piece of filth" and protested against its production since its debut. A handful of protestors were even seen outside of the venue after this current production, holding signs with phrases such as "Stop Excusing Sin" and "Jesus is Sinless, Holy, Perfect." It was clear that they were sharing their opinions on the show without even seeing it.
To be honest, I was skeptical walking in. I was curious as to how the script would flow or how any potential comedic moments would land without offending anyone in the audience. Thankfully, I was met with reassurance as the performers depicted the story with nothing but grace and delicacy. I was not disappointed.
Presented at St. John's, showgoers of all backgrounds came to witness the reimagined story of Christ. With an almost sold-out audience, the performers left each audience member touched in a different way. Few were seen without tears in their eyes or smiles on their faces as they exited the venue.
The performers were diverse in age, gender, sexuality, and race. Furthering the theme of the story: God's love for humans is unconditional and eternal.
The performance space mirrors the nontraditional story as it takes place in a small room, only big enough to hold about 50 seats. The intimate setting allows for a deeper understanding of the themes and supports each person to feel comfortable expressing their attitudes toward the show, distasteful or not. Even with minimal set design, costumes, props, lighting, and music, all 13 of the performers were able to capture the audience's attention for two-and-a-half hours. Even though I know this story by heart, I was on the edge of my seat the entire time enthralled by each and every scene that followed.
Heavy emotional moments were met with witty comedy.
The play opened with each actor being "christened" with the name of their character and a brief description of that character's backstory. Peter (Mitchell Aaron Mulkey) was an impressive fisherman while James the Less (Stephanie Yu) was an underdog walking in James' (Byron Ard) shadow. From there, the classic Nativity scene, or the birth of Christ, was told. Littered with comedic gold, Mulkey acted as Mother Mary who birthed a plastic Barbie doll and decided to name it Joshua instead of Jesus. The three wise men broke into song and presented gifts that were utterly useless to a newborn baby.
The story got heavier as we watched Joshua grow into a teenager and attend high school prom in Corpus Christi, Texas. Right away, Nathaniel Bush Jr. was a success. His performance as the Son of God was riddled with deep and raw emotion that was felt throughout the entire room. We yearned for him to be accepted by his peers and celebrated when the beginning stages of his romantic relationship with Judas blossomed.
Soon, Joshua was running away from home after being ridiculed for his sexuality. Here is where we first see His first healing miracle and the joyous performance of Nat M. Sherwood (Andrew) made it all the more exciting. Sherwood's theatrical expression of a prom chaperone, truck driver, and, later on, a man possessed by a demon, was a true highlight of the evening.
After spending some time alone in the desert, Joshua is met with temptations in the form of a mirage that strays him from his Father's callings. He must decide between his ultimate suffering or wealth and power. True to the traditional Biblical story, Joshua chooses his original path of suffering and heads into town, where he will soon meet his first follower. Greeted by beggars, shopkeepers, and prostitutes alike, Joshua performs his second and third miracles, leading the 12 Apostles to follow His teachings. Within the course of the script, we are constantly reminded of Joshua's simple yet impactful mission: to spread love and show everyone that they are capable of salvation, regardless of their identity.
After all, Scripture says, "The Lord saw all that He made; it was good" (Genesis 1:31).
As the two lovers, Joshua and Judas, embark on their openly gay relationship, Judas is faced with a priest who tempts him into betrayal with 30 silver coins for the price of revealing Joshua's identity. After a comical depiction of the Last Supper, we see this betrayal come to light, and Joshua is arrested by two Roman soldiers.
The Last Supper was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the show. The performers executed traditional LGBTQ+ dance moves such as voguing in the musical number "Let's Have a KiKi," a term known to ballroom drag subculture as a social gathering with gossip. Not only was the choreography executed properly but it also spread the joy of live drag performance to all seated in the audience who couldn't help but clap along.
At this point in the show, audience members could feel the impending suffering that was soon coming to Joshua. As Pontus Pilot declared His crimes, Joshua was placed in a velvet purple toga and a crown of thorns placed upon his head. He trembled under the weight of the cross and everyone, actors and audience members alike, shared tears and a heavy heart.
Though minimal props and costumes were used, the story was told flawlessly with impeccable nuance. Each actor individually and unusually highlighted what it means to move through life with accepting love and grace, Christ's most critical teaching.
No matter your identity, you will find a way to relate to this story and its teachings.
Corpus Christi continues through Saturday, June 10. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.