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She Has Risen: The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven Comes to Provincetown

by Steve Desroches

In 2006, while Jo Clifford was transitioning and coming out as a transgender woman in her native Scotland, people on the street would hurl hateful insults, point and laugh, as well as sometimes threaten her. She just did not understand where all of this hatred was coming from. The more she thought about it the more it seemed clear that most of the hate against the LGBTQ community was fueled by religion. Raised a Christian, Clifford recalled being taught that when unsure of how to respond or act in a certain situation, one should ponder the question, “What would Jesus do?” And then she decided to re-read the gospel, and specifically those passages where Jesus speaks directly. 

“I was so moved,” says Clifford. “When you look at what Jesus actually said, it’s so beautiful.”

Often speaking for the outcasts and outsiders in society, Clifford found it hard to believe that Jesus would shout slurs at transgender people, let alone hate or fear them. He’d embrace and love them. And then Clifford thought what if Jesus came back, as Christians believe he will, but returned as a transgender woman. What would she have to say? Would Christians embrace her or shun her? That idea became the seed that bloomed into the play The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven, written by Clifford, which will be performed by her this Friday evening at St. Mary of the Harbor

The performance is part theater, part ritual, and part storytelling, as bread and wine are shared while the gospels are reimagined by a transgender Jesus. Clifford calls the play a “tribute to Jesus,” and since its premier in Glasgow in 2009, The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heavenhas largely been performed in churches, as that feels the most appropriate place, says Clifford. A playwright since 1985, Clifford has written many plays, but none prior or since have caused a commotion as much as this one. The Catholic Archbishop of Glasgow Mario Conti condemned it, though he never saw it, notes Clifford. 

The BBC broadcasted protests, making the controversy nationwide in the United Kingdom. “I imagined people would find it rather dull,” says Clifford. “I couldn’t believe it when I showed up to the theater and the streets were full of protestors. It was never my intention to insult or to create controversy.”

 Playwright Jo Clifford

For all those upset by the notion of a transgender Jesus, there were those touched by the message of love and acceptance. And affirming and progressive houses of worship did welcome the show all over the U.K., with packed audiences eventually leading to a run at the famed Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The attention it received led to the play being translated into several languages with performances produced in Uruguay, Argentina, Norway, Australia, Cape Verde, Germany, and most notably in Brazil, where it became the topic of a national conversation.

O Evangelho Segundo Jesus, Raihna do Ceu opened in Brazil in 2016 starring Renata Carvalho, a Brazilian actor who is travesti (a term common in Latin America that generally translates to transgender). From opening night every performance everywhere in the country was met with threats of violence and attempts by some government officials to shut it down. Out of fear, some venues canceled the production. But wherever it landed, the show sold out and supporters spoke out in defense of the show. According to Brazilian LGBTQ organizations, the data shows the country has the highest murder rate in the world for LGBTQ people. Each performance was a scary endeavor. 

But one night in the city of Londria something beautiful happened. A group of pregnant women and women with small children formed a protective pathway to shield the theater as well as the audience members arriving to see the show.

“Going to see the play became a political act,” says Clifford. “It had a very profound effect on Brazilian theater. The impact was just immense.” 

Clifford had been trying to bring the show to the United States for years, but between the bureaucratic thicket that is the United States’immigration system and theaters unwilling to take the risk, the efforts went nowhere. Then one night after a performance at Iona Abbey on the remote Scottish island of Iona, three American women loved it so much they began work on bringing the show to the US. As a result, The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven made its US debut in Northampton, Mass., last week at First Churches, a United Church of Christ church, will be performed here in Provincetown this week, and then in Boston at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul.

“I’ve heard of Provincetown as an important place of queer liberation,” says Clifford. “I’m overjoyed to bring this show there.”

The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven will be performed at St. Mary of the Harbor, 517 Commercial St., on Friday, June 14 at 7 p.m. To reserve a ticket ($10 suggested donation) call 508.487.2622 or pay at the door if not sold out.

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Ginger Mountain

Ginger Mountain (MS Communications Media, BA Fine Arts/Teaching Certification K-12) has been part of the graphic design team at Provincetown Magazine since 2008. Ginger has worked as a creative director, individual contractor, and freelance designer with clients representing many areas —business software, consumer products, professional services, entertainment, and network hardware to name just a few — providing creative layout and development of a wide range of print media content. Her clients ranged from small local businesses to large corporations and Fortune 500 companies, from New Hampshire to Georgia

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