Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Transgender Jesus play goes global: “The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven” by Jo Clifford

Jo Clifford plays a transgender Christ (photo by Rod Penn)

A controversial play about a transgender Jesus will go on an international tour after recently concluding a successful run in Edinburgh, Scotland.

“The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven” is written and performed by Scottish trans* woman playwright Jo Clifford. In the play Jesus comes back to the present day as a transgender woman, telling Bible stories in new ways and inviting the audience to share an informal communion of bread, wine and blessing.

“I never said beware the homosexual or the transgender or the queer. Because I am one of them,” Jesus says in the play, which stays true to core Christian belief in love and justice for all.

A variety of new videos capture the flavor of the Queen Jesus play. In one of the early scenes Jesus emerges gently from the darkness to light candles, saying,

I am the daughter of God,
And almost certainly the son also.
My mum said,
Let there be light.
And I say:
I am the light.

The Queen Jesus play unleashed a wave of hatred when it was first produced in 2009. More than 300 conservative Christian protesters blocked traffic on opening night in Glasgow, Scotland. The Archbishop of Glasgow called the play “an affront to the Christian faith” and social media comments denounced it as “heresy” and “pure satanism.” The Jesus in Love Blog covered the controversy in the 2009 article “300 protest transsexual Jesus play.”

“I was frightened by the protest and traumatised by the massive online expression of hatred my performance provoked. But it taught me that what I was doing was important. And I’ve had much support from other Christians, and especially from the Unitarians and the United Reformed church,” Clifford said.

Since then the play has been performed in a variety of spaces and places, from a hotel room in Brighton to a beautiful Unitarian church in Edinburgh, and around the world from Eastern Europe to South America.

One of the most moving parts of the play comes when Jesus prays what is traditionally called “the Lord’s Prayer” or “the Our Father” with fresh words and a compelling queer voice, as captured on video:

Our mother who art on earth
Blessed is your name
Your joy be here on earth
As it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily kisses
Forgive us our stupidity
As we forgive those stupidities done to us.
Lead us not into self-righteousness or rage
And save us from destruction and negativity.
For thine is the queendom
The beauty and the joy
For ever and ever amen.

Critics and fans tend to focus on the revolutionary quality of seeing a transgender Jesus, but it’s also an enlightening surprise to see Jesus as an older person: wrinkled, limping slightly and complaining about “my poor tired body that every day gets closer to death.”

Clifford explains the origins of the play in a chapter in “Out of the Ordinary: Representations of LGBT Lives,” edited by Ian Rivers and Richard Ward.

“My own childhood was marred by an utter lack of positive role models. People such as me were either portrayed as ridiculous -- dames in the English pantomime tradition -- or evil. It seemed important to me to try to investigate the origin of these distressingly negative stereotypes and see if it was possible to replace or at least subvert them.”

Clifford found parallels between suppression of goddess worship in the Old Testament / Hebrew scriptures and suppression of her own female self during adolescence. She explored these ideas in the 2003 play “God’s New Frock,” forerunner of the Queen Jesus play It appears in “The Sexual Theologian: Essays on Sex, God and Politics,” edited by Marcella Althaus-Reid and Lisa Isherwood.

She decided to do a sequel based on the New Testament, and it quickly became clear to her that the main character needed to be Jesus. “Portraying Jesus as a transsexual is not nearly as shocking or offensive or outrageous as it may first appear to be. Indeed it belongs very firmly to mainstream Christian tradition. We are taught that Jesus, being the Son of God, took on human form and so engaged fully with human experience… Furthermore, we are taught that Jesus constantly associated with the downtrodden and excluded members of his society,” she wrote in “Out of the Ordinary.”

Clifford discusses the meaning of “The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven” and the reactions to it in a series of video interviews.

Jo (formerly John) Clifford has written about 80 plays. They have been performed all over the world, won various awards and been translated into many languages. Her “Great Expectations” makes her the first openly transgender woman playwright to have had a play on in London’s West End.

Her upcoming performances as Queen Jesus will be more than a theatrical tour. The website describes it as a “pilgrimage of sacred spiritual and LGBT sites both nationally and internationally, forging partnerships with theatres, church groups and communities on the way.”

Related links:

New play: Transwoman Jesus tells Christmas story

This post is part of the Queer Christ series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. The series gathers together visions of the queer Christ as presented by artists, writers, theologians and others.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
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