John Jordan Otte loves theater. “You can get into people’s hearts in a very nonconfrontational way,” he says. “If they choose to get out of their homes and buy that ticket and go to the theater, they’re going to see something shared by another human being and not have to be beaten down with its message.”
Otte is a 27-year-old senior in the theater program at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas. This spring he took an advanced directing class in which the professor asked each of the four students to select a play, cast it, direct it, publicize it, and stage an end-of-semester production in the school theater. Otte chose Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi. The play portrays gay men living in 1950s Corpus Christi as Jesus Christ and the Apostles.
Otte knew it might be controversial in a conservative town like Stephenville, two hours southwest of Fort Worth. But he wanted to share with an audience not only the play’s portrayal of gay men’s lives, but also its insistence that homosexuality and Christianity aren’t mutually exclusive. “It just really spoke to me,” he says.
Otte grew up a devout Mormon in Granbury. After high school, he served as a Mormon missionary for more than two years in Italy. “I was very faithful in my church,” he says. “However, this was always a struggle and a battle for me because I’ve known this about me—that I was gay—since I was very, very young.”
After returning from his mission, at 22, Otte came out and left the church. His parents are still devoted followers. “That same divergent struggle that I had growing up is seen in the play,” he says. “I found it to be very beautiful and a story of acceptance and love, and not something blasphemous at all.”
Once word spread through the community, Otte got hate mail and death threats, and some alumni stopped donating to the school. The story rocketed from the Stephenville Empire-Tribune to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to the Associated Press and CNN. At one point, Otte had to hide in the fine arts library to avoid more than a dozen camera crews stalking the campus.
On March 26, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst weighed in, calling on school officials to cancel the play, which, he said, depicts acts that are “morally reprehensible to the vast majority of Americans.” Otte and the 13 cast members were determined to stage Corpus Christi. Now it was bigger than their own experiences; it had become a fight for gay rights and free expression.
A day before the performance in late March, the school created a protest zone by barricading a parking lot—some 800 demonstrators were expected. State troopers showed up, as did police in riot gear and snipers for the rooftops. But 12 hours before curtain, university officials canceled the production because, they contended, they feared for students’ safety.
A national theater group, 108 Productions, has stepped forward to stage the play in Dallas June 4-6, but not with the Tarleton State cast. Says Otte, “The show will go on, whether it’s mine or not, and people will be able to see the message.
“I don’t personally believe that Jesus Christ was gay, and that’s not what I was trying to say with the play. … That’s why I hope people go see the show in Dallas so that instead of believing everything [the media] said, they can get past the stigma of reading the title ‘gay Jesus play’ and see what it’s truly about. Which is what each of us in the LGBT community are fighting for too.”