The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven
I entered a dark, candle-lit auditorium, finding a dining table stretching the length of the floor, draped in a pristine white tablecloth, with candles and cutlery. Audience members trickled in, free to sit in the auditorium or at the table as guests of a transgender Jesus.
Queer, and just a bit controversial, The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven introduces us to Jesus preparing a typical gathering for disciples. I attended this production over Christmas at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre, and found it touchingly bizarre that the play by Edinburgh-based playwright and actress Jo Clifford has stirred so much tension and self-examination in different parts of the world.
In Brazil, The Gospel According to Jesus has been met by angry guards and sell-out crowds; a branch of the Evangelical Church has requested its banishment, while audience members have formed lines of barricades to let the play continue. Arguably its greatest star, the Brazilian travesti actress Renata Carvalho, has yelled at security officers trying to disable the play and disperse the audience during mid-performance. Few plays anywhere can have provoked such reactions but when you sit there in the audience, watching a transgender woman lighting candles and talking about love, it's difficult not to see this play as a touchstone for solidarity with the underdog and wonder what exactly was riling the protestors.
All that's best with humanity is the play's guiding theme: we get Jesus handing out bread and red wine while chattily providing a series of sermons including the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Transgender Daughter. We also get a queering of our conception of Jesus and the disciples:
And I don't know why they started saying we were only twelve.
I mean there were sometimes less,
but mostly more.
Or why they said we were only men.
Some of us were men . . .
and some of us were women
and some of us were men who used to be women
and some of us were women who used to be men
and some of us were both at once.
We confused people,
and I loved that in us most of all.
It is, of course, these kind of lines that will either provoke indignation or curiosity, a 'I never thought of it like that' about one of the best-known stories around. The central message of the sermons remains the same, but with a different light, one less patriarchal and less heteronormative. For lovers of patriarchy, accordingly, this queering of Jesus may continue to rile – we are in a new age of patriarchal anger and suspicion, after all – but for those looking for a theatre of love, The Gospel According to Jesus is a wonderfully meditative night out and proof of the gentle, potential radicalism of transgender identity.
(Image by Aly Wight)