As political theater goes, you couldn't ask for better elements of the main plotline: a small public college in the "Cowboy Capital of the World," the lieutenant governor of Texas in high dudgeon (though not entirely sticking to the facts) and a swarm of protest about a play featuring a gay Jesus. And just in time for Easter!
The whole thing began when John Jordan Otte, an openly gay 26-year-old theater student at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, received his advanced directing course’s midterm assignment: to select, direct and produce a one-act play of his choice. The end result, as fellow Tarleton student Kelsie Ray put it while anchoring a student-produced news program, was “one of the most controversial stories to hit Stephenville since the Klan rally in 2007.”
Otte’s play of choice, Corpus Christi, was, in many ways, distinctly Texan. It was written by Corpus Christi-bred Tony-winner Terrence McNally and is set in the small-town Texas of his youth. Essentially, it is a reimagining of the story of Jesus Christ (referred to as Joshua because his mother’s husband, Joseph, thinks the name Jesus “sounds like a Mexican”) and his disciples from childhood to crucifixion. The twist: They are all gay men, two of whom are married in a ceremony performed by Joshua — heralded as the “King of Queers” before he is crucified.
The play has been a source of controversy since its 1998 off-Broadway premiere at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Fun fact: The cast featured Dexter’s Michael C. Hall and starred Josh Lucas in a breakout role as gay Judas (eight years later Lucas portrayed iconic Texas Western basketball coach Don Haskins in Glory Road). The Catholic League and others condemned and intensely protested that performance, calling it blasphemous. They were one-upped by the response to the 2000 premiere in London: a fatwa against McNally from the Shariah court of the U.K. The Stephenville premiere didn’t reach that extreme, but it was no exception. On the eve of Tarleton’s first and only planned performance of the infamous “gay Jesus play,” as the university braced for unprecedented protests amid a media firestorm that extended far beyond Texas, an unexpected condemnation of the play was blasted across the state by, of all people, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
“Every citizen is entitled to the freedom of speech,” Dewhurst said in a statement on Friday, the day before the scheduled performance, “but no one should have the right to use government funds or institutions to portray acts that are morally reprehensible to the majority of Americans.” Hours later, the performance was canceled by the professor of the course, Mark Holtorf, citing security concerns and "the need to maintain an orderly academic environment." There is no plan to reschedule it. Otte will be graded based on his final tech rehearsal.
“It baffles me that he thinks he has any right to weigh in on such a decision when this is an institution of higher learning,” Otte says of Dewhurst’s statement, likening it to having the state’s second-highest-ranking official issue an unsolicited critique of a college English paper. “It was never intended to be an attack on Christians by the playwright or me. If [Dewhurst] would even take the time to read or watch the play, he would in no way have that opinion.”
Dewhurst’s unexpected weigh-in didn't raise the eyebrows of university spokeswoman Liza Benedict, who had been dealing with unprecedented scrutiny since news of the play first hit the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “Not now, I’m not surprised,” she said after seeing his statement. “Two weeks ago, sure, I would have been. The minute it hit the outside media, the rest of the community began to get involved.”
A few key points seemed to get lost as news of gay Jesus’ upcoming Tarleton debut spread. First, the performance was not and, according to Benedict, “would never have been,” part of Tarleton’s theater schedule. This was merely a class assignment for a grade, not meant for widespread public consumption. “Technically, the general public could come see it,” Benedict said. “But it should be understood that when these are held, it’s usually just family and friends of students. There’s an audience of maybe 20.”
And Otte was the one footing the bill. “I paid for the royalties,” he said. “I paid for the scripts. If they want to say state resources were used, the workshop theater is our smallest theater in the Fine Arts Center at Tarleton. We use it as a classroom every single day.”
Though Dewhurst advocated against it, the university had, up until the cancellation, been determined to let the show go on. “There was never a thought of stopping the performance,” said Benedict. “Legally, we do not have any choice here, none whatsoever.”
Tarleton State University President F. Dominic Dottavio even issued an open letter saying he found the play offensive, but added, “We have had many conversations with the Office of General Counsel for The Texas A&M University System, and they have made it clear to us that this is an unambiguous freedom of speech (First Amendment) issue.”
Extraordinary steps were taken: The audience was restricted to classmates and immediate family members; the 4 p.m. curtain was moved up to a decidedly less fashionable 8 a.m.; extra security was called in. Of course, professors can cancel class anytime they want — and 12 hours before his class was scheduled to start, Holtorf did just that. When word reached Dewhurst’s office, he sent out another press release, in which he gave the impression that the decision had come down from on high.
“The cancellation of the play, Corpus Christi, by the university was the right thing to do. While I’m a strong defender of free speech, we must also protect the rights and reasonable expectations of Texas taxpayers and how their money is used. A play that is completely contrary to the standards of decency and moral beliefs of the vast majority of Texans should not be performed using any state resources, especially by an institution of higher learning.”
Benedict pointed out inaccuracies in the statement, reiterating that the university did not make the decision and that the play would not have been funded with taxpayer money. “In fact,” she said, “the student is now out that money.” According to Otte, his total financial loss is approximately $200.
Otte initially backed the safety-based university decision, but Dewhurst’s protestations have made him question that support. “It seems to me, if the lieutenant governor is weighing in on it, to become more of a civil rights issue,” Otte says. “I wanted this to be a class project that I shared with my friends and family. He has made it a very different issue.” Otte says he understands he was putting the play on in a small town with small-town values, but he struggles to comprehend the government involvement. “Are you going to pull books out of the library? Are you going to censor English classes? Are you not going to allow anthropology professors to speak about cultural groups that have different belief systems than us?”
Dewhurst and his staff did not return repeated calls for comment.
As the sun rose on Tarleton’s Clyde H. Wells Fine Arts Center on Saturday, minutes before the actors would have taken the stage and been blessed into their roles (the script calls for the play to begin with each actor being told, by John the Baptist, “I baptize you and recognize your divinity as a human being”), state trooper cars lined the front of the building. Though Benedict says there were “no direct threats,” the Tarleton State University Police Department; the Stephenville Police Department; the Erath County Sheriff’s Department; the Department of Public Safety; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and the Stephenville Fire Department were all on hand due to the number of what Benedict described as “generic and general threats that were vicious and hateful.” Before the play was canceled, hundreds of protesters were expected to descend. In the end, only one showed up and then promptly left.
It was a busy weekend anyway at Tarleton. About 3,000 prospective students were scheduled to tour the university that day, and jazz clinics were being held. A visibly relieved Dean Minix, dean of the College of Liberal and Fine Arts, gazed at the empty parking lot and said, “Can you imagine having all those protesters here? This was not the ideal weekend for it.”
What Benedict calls an “insignificant” number of prospective students did pull out of the day of touring because of the media hoopla surrounding Corpus Christi. As for the fallout among donors, she says, “We still don’t know that yet.”
Otte’s was one of four student plays that were to be performed and graded that day. In his letter, Dottavio pointed out that the others “included such classics as ‘The Importance of Being Ernest’ [sic] by Oscar Wilde” — another famous gay playwright. Those performances were also canceled with no plans to reschedule. Because Otte and his classmates were denied an audience, their education suffered, Otte says. “None of us will get any theatrical criticism other than from our professor,” he says. Answers to valuable questions — “What can I do better? What should I change?” — will only come from a single perspective.
Otte says he has received multiple offers to stage Corpus Christi from theaters around the Metroplex. So the “gay Jesus play” may have been canceled at Tarleton, as Dewhurst desired, but there’s a chance that it could rise again.