A spirit of acceptance emanates from the opening moments of Corpus Christi. The actors enter and check in with each other. Greetings are warmly exchanged. Cast members are recognized. Blessings are bestowed. It’s an old ritual ushering a familiar story, thousands of years old.
Corpus Christi is Terrance McNally’s reimagining of the life of Jesus as a gay man growing up in modern day Texas. And if that is not enough blasphemy for religious conservatives, cast the disciples with a diversity that reflects the broad gender and racial spectrum of the LGBTQ+ community. Director Dustin Britt has done just that with this current production at St. John’s Metropolitan Community Church, dramatically elevating the power of this play with its message of love and inclusivity.
In the pivotal lead role of Joshua, son of God, Nathaniel Bush, Jr. smoothly transitions from a teen grappling with his sexuality to a young man inviting others to join him on his mission. He effectively captures the very human struggle of acceptance of one’s self, as well as embracing his ultimate destiny. The debut performance of this actor was incredibly compelling throughout with his quiet, engaging, and humble demeanor pulling both his disciples and the audience into his orbit: his strength rooted in his gentleness.
Speaking of the disciples, Britt has assembled a terrific group of actors, some who are making their stage debuts. Not only are they tasked with a primary role, most then jump into a variety of other characters to great comic and dramatic effect. Chris Acevedo as Simon exhibits impressive vocals in the opening hymn, and Stephanie Yu adds a wonderful twist to her portrayal of God as a Tiger Mom.
Nat M. Sherwood is particularly notable as they morphed from the humorous emcee of the senior prom to a blind truck driver to a man possessed by an evil spirit. Philip Guadagno also displayed his wide range, from a hesitant follower to a menacing priest. It was evident that every actor invested a lot of their personalities into each of their roles. Britt has an enviable talent for directing actors to let their strengths shine.
Of course, the other major performance that has to be commended is that of Benaiah Adesoji as Judas. In this version, Judas becomes Joshua’s lover as well as his betrayer. Adesoji carries the burden with aplomb, the role a constant reminder of how the play will end.
With a stripped down set consisting mostly of benches and a container of props, this production has great moments of joy before becoming weighty as it moves to its inevitable conclusion. The audience has become the congregation, bearing witness to the proceedings that were sometimes painful. Tears were shed both on stage and by audience members: a testimony to the power of the performances.
When this play premiered in 1998 at the Manhattan Theatre Club, the religious right and Catholic organizations condemned it; the show had to be temporarily canceled because of bomb and death threats. Of course, few attended a performance to understand that actually the play is an homage to the teachings of Christ – an emphasis on unconditional acceptance of one another. A message needed now more than ever.
Corpus Christi runs through June 10. For more information visit https://stjohnsmcc.org/corpuschristi.html.