A Brazilian judge has successfully shut down a performance of Jo Clifford’s ‘The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven’, with a prominent Catholic bishop calling for the play to be banned altogether.
They argue the groundbreaking work, which depicts Jesus as a transgender woman, is “offensive” to Christians and disrespectful. It comes as the cast and crew of the play’s Brazilian run have been targeted by angry protests and, in some cases, death threats.
However, Clifford told Scotland on Sunday the attempts to shut down her play have buoyed interest and support, with subsequent sold out performances receiving standing ovations.
The award-winning trans playwright, performer and poet, from Edinburgh, said the ban set a “dangerous precedent,” and said her play’s critics were unaware of its Christian message of love and compassion.
Although the play has been running in Brazil since last August, touring in theatres, community centres, and even prisons, the protests intensified last week when a court in the southeastern municipality of Jundai issued a last minute injunction.
The order by judge Luiz Antonio de Campos Júnior, which has been appealed, cited the play as being in “extreme bad taste” and of a “very low intellectual level” which served to disrespect Christianity and Jesus, a figure “venerated in the whole world.”
It was served only an hour before the curtain was due to go up at the Sesc Jundai venue, with the lead actress, Renata Carvalho, applying her make up at the time.
The play, described by Clifford as a reflection on how Jesus embraced marginalised, disenfranchised and persecuted people, has sparked numerous protests and pickets by Christian groups since it received its premiere in Scotland in 2009. However, the injunction in Brazil marks the first time it has been banned outright.
Clifford, who is a Christian, told Scotland on Sunday: “The injunction claimed the play was an affront to Christianity, but It was extraordinarily ignorant. The judge had no knowledge or understanding of the play’s content, which promotes Christian values, love, and forgiveness.
“I have experienced protests over the play before from people who regard it as an insult to Christianity, but what’s sinister about Brazil is that the production has received some very nasty death threats and Natalia [Mallo, the director] has had the tyres on her car slashed and. The situation is escalating and it’s a dangerous precedent.”
Mallo said the injunction was delivered after the court had closed, meaning there was no time to appeal it. The legal basis for the order, she explained, was “very fragile” and based on “personal opinion, prejudice, and transphobia.”
She added: “The play has become an emblematic work, exposing the symptoms of a failing democracy where the law is applied following very debatable criteria and where the constitution doesn’t mean much.”
Since the injunction was served, there have been other legal attempts to prevent the play being shown, with a group of conservative lawyers attempting to shut it down in the southern city of Porto Alegre. However, their application was rejected by judges.
Tomé Ferreira da Silva, the Bishop of São José do Rio Preto, also gave a radio address where he accused Clifford and play’s performers of “insulting” Christianity, and called for a total ban.
However, Clifford has since written an open letter to the Catholic leader, stating that although he might find her interpretation of Holy Communion as “very unorthodox,” the play focused on how Jesus took human form “among the rejected and despised.”
The British Council in Brazil has also condemned attempts to prevent the play being performed.
It said the play is a reflection on “the oppression and intolerance” suffered by transgender people, which has opened up a dialogue around gender issues.
It added: “We believe in art not only as an instrument of transformation, but a celebration of human rights, such important elements in British and Brazilian cultures.”
Earlier this month, a freedom of speech row broke out in Brazil after a the Queermuseu - Queer Museum - exhibition at Santander Bank’s cultural centre in Porto Alegre was closed following a campaign by right-wing protesters.
Such incidents, artists say, offer evidence of the rampant homophobia and transphobia within Brazilian society.
According to Rede Trans, a Brazilian organisation which monitors and records attacks on the transgender community, a record 144 people were murdered in 2016, compared with 57 in 2008, the year the site began collating data.
Clifford said she hoped her play would, in part, help galvanise the artistic community and allow gender issues to be discussed openly.
“I think people understand this is a crucial issue and a test case after the closure of the Queermuseu,” she said. “It’s as if my play has unexpectedly become a symbol of the rights of the artists and those of transgender people.”