A college student's production of a play in which Jesus is portrayed as the "King of Queers" has outraged residents in a Texas town that fancies itself the Cowboy Capital of the World.
Just in time for Easter, Tarleton State University is playing host to a student performance of Terrence McNally's 1998 play, "Corpus Christi," which depicts a gay Jesus performing a same-sex wedding for two of his apostles.
And though Jesus washed the feet of his disciples in the traditional biblical narrative, his character (called Joshua) in the play shows Judas the full extent of his love, kissing the son of perdition at Pontius Pilate High School's senior prom.
It's all too much for some residents of Stephenville, Texas, who say there's far too much passion in this Passion play. They are pressuring the university to call off the Saturday performance, which has already been moved ahead eight hours to an 8 a.m. start time to help head off protests.
"It infuriates me that somebody would be given a platform to be able to demean and degrade the Son of God," said David Harris, pastor of the town's Hillcrest Church of Christ. "I'm angry about it and every Christian should be."
Harris, who hosts a radio show, said phones were ringing off the hook in objection to the play's performance.
A school spokeswoman said it changed the performance time and boosted security to guarantee a "safe and secure environment" for the students, and it has now closed public access to the theater, which seats only 90 people. Only students and invited family members will be allowed to attend the show, which is an abbreviated version of McNally's play.
The production is a class project for student-director John Jordan Otte, who said in a written statement that he chose the play to "bring people together" and help gain acceptance for gay Christians, who he said often feel alienated from their churches.
"It is being said often that this play is a direct attack on Christians — their faith and their deity. It simply is not true," wrote Otte, 26, who said he is a devout Christian.
"I am not attacking anyone in choosing this play. I want people to see and understand another side to faith. I want us all to know that unconditional love means just that -- unconditional -- and I believe tolerance is a key message in this play. None of us, not one of us, should ever feel alone or separated from God or whomever we believe in."
The play presents a modern-day version of Jesus' life and death in 1960s Corpus Christi, Texas, with a few controversial updates. The apostles are all gay, Joseph is an alcoholic wife-beater, and Mary gives birth alongside a chorus of moaning men.
"At the end of the play [Jesus] is crucified with the moniker above his head as 'King of the Queers,'" said Harris, the pastor. "And they call this art."
But student Timothy Parker noted that the message of the play — tolerance — should be heeded on campus. "This is something being put on as a learning experience for the students," he told WFAA News
Another student, Christopher Hepburn, called the controversy "ridiculous."
"This is academia, and one of the attributes of academia is cultural diversity," he told WFAA News. "Having this shown is something we should embrace as college students."
The hubbub is a historic first for quiet Stephenville, which is bracing for protests scheduled for Saturday morning. Campus police will herd uninvited guests into a parking lot near the theater, a move that has drawn notice in Fort Worth, 70 miles to the northeast.
"Tarleton State University police will need 50 extra state and local officers Saturday — because of a drama class project?" asked Bud Kennedy, a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Kennedy said the backlash against the class play "is beginning to seem like a blasphemy fatwa by the Erath County Taliban" — and as it happens, there already is a fatwa out against "Corpus Christi," which has long been condemned as blasphemous. Its inaugural run in New York in 1998 was ended abruptly by a series of bomb threats targeting the play's author, actors and venue.
A British Islamic group put out a death warrant
against McNally, in 1999 when "Corpus Christi" premiered in London's Pleasance Theatre. If he visits an Islamic country, he could face arrest and execution.
Despite the controversial nature of the project and mounting pressure from the community, Tarleton State has stood by Otte's right to free speech.
"Legally we have to protect the student's First Amendment right," said Liza Benedict, associate vice president of marketing and communications.
"We really don't want to lose the people's love and loyalty for Tarleton over one incident."