Tarleton Caved, but Gallaudet Defends Controversial Play

April 6, 2010

Tarleton State University last month called off a production of Corpus Christi -- a controversial play in which a Jesus-like character is depicted as gay, and endorses gay marriage -- following a barrage of criticism from religious groups and threats against the production and the university. Some of those opposed to the play vowed to go after any other college production of the play. The next target is Gallaudet University, but the institution is standing by its production, which premieres later this week.

The student division of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, which mobilized opposition to the Tarleton State production, has been urging supporters to demand that Gallaudet call off its version of the play. The group is distributing phone numbers and e-mail addresses of Gallaudet officials, noting that Gallaudet is supported by federal tax dollars. An organizer of the group is quoted on its Web site as saying: "Just as everyone is entitled to their own good reputation, Gallaudet University has no right to harm and slander the spotless reputation of the God-Man with blasphemy, then run to academic freedom for cover."

In several ways, Gallaudet is taking a different stance than did Tarleton State. At that Texas institution, while university officials originally said that the First Amendment required that the play not be blocked, they condemned the play and said that it did not have any "artistic or redeeming quality."

At Gallaudet, however, while officials have acknowledged that the play offends some people, they have refused to condemn it and have also noted that others like the play. An e-mail sent by Stephen Weiner, the provost, said: "Gallaudet University neither endorses nor condemns the views expressed in Corpus Christi, or any dramatic production. We understand that there are people who will find this play affirming, liberating, and cathartic, and others who find its message disrespectful, distasteful, and repugnant. We seek to allow all views to be aired openly and respectfully, and we hope that open discussions will allow individuals to listen to one another. This is the hallmark of an academic institution."

Ethan Sinnott, assistant professor of theater arts at Gallaudet and director of the production, said in an e-mail interview before a rehearsal that he believes critics don't know what they are attacking. He said that the Web sites organizing the attacks are portraying stereotypes of gay people and are suggesting a false dichotomy between religion and gay life.

The situation "saddens me as a straight person with a lot of gay loved ones in his life," he said, adding that "with all due respect, for a lot of people who have signed the petition [calling for the play to be called off], the odds are they either haven't read the script itself, or [have] secondhand information filled with misconceptions and factual errors."

Sinnott said that he does not view the Terrence McNally play as mocking Christian belief. "The idea is: what if someone similar to Christ (but who is not Christ) was born into today's world in an area of America defined by its fundamentalism and homophobia? How would that story play out through the prism of the gay life experience? How would it be similar to and different from the original?" He said that the Christ-like character's fate "ultimately looks like a hate crime which could happen anywhere." The play's criticism is "of people -- especially those in authority -- who use religion to justify hate crimes and violence against those who are somehow lesser. The ultimate irony is that Corpus ends up reinforcing the values and principles integral to the Christian faith."

While Gallaudet may have been a victim of bad timing in that its production was scheduled shortly after the Tarleton State controversy brought renewed exposure to the play, Sinnott said he viewed the timing as fortuitous.

"D.C. just passed a gay marriage law a few months ago, and more and more Gallaudet students are coming out, which speaks volumes of the university as a safe, nurturing environment where our students are free to be themselves, even those who consider themselves religious," he said. The many campus discussions of the issues have been "emotional at times," he said, but on campus, people have listened to one another.

"Ultimately, it's possible no minds may be changed, but new perspectives end up being recognized, respected, and appreciated," he said. "I strongly believe it's perfectly healthy to question and re-examine our belief systems once in a while from different angles -- especially in a world as morally nebulous, gray and uncertain as ours."

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