Picture above: Actress Renato Carvalho in O’ Evangelho Jesus, Rainha Do Ceu (Gospel according to Jesus, Queen of Heaven). Reproduced by permission
The show had gone really well, considering.
The actress and crew were exhausted: they’d flown up the night before, had to stay in a different town from the performance, and Jimmi, the stage manager, had had very little time to set up.
Natalia, the director, had been with the actress while she’d been vomiting with fear.
This wasn’t just stage fright. The threats Renata had received before coming up to this town in north Brazil had been graphic and horrifying.
Brazil is the country which kills more trans women than anywhere else on earth.
So the threats were also horribly plausible.
She was going to get beaten with wooden clubs. She was going to be stoned to death. She was going to be crucified. She was going to be kidnapped and tortured until she was screaming in unbearable agony.
There had been so many threats that when she’d got on the plane in Sao Paulo she’d been convinced she’d been going to her death.
But they’d taken precautions. They’d hired armed bodyguards. As was their custom, they’d also hired a metal detector so they could search the audience for concealed weapons.
With Natalia’s help, Renata had recovered from her terror. At the last minute she’d decided not to wear the bulletproof vest she’d been offered because it would ruin the line of her dress.
Courageous and accomplished artist as she is, she’d given an amazing performance to a full house.
They’d been invited to perform in a festival in the northern town of Garanhuns. Its motto that year had been “Long live freedom”.
But the protests from catholic and evangelical church bodies had been so intense the festival had withdrawn their invitation. LGBTI activists in the town were so furious they’d crowdfunded the performance.
And that was why the company felt obliged to come.
A legal challenge had forced the festival to reinstate their invitation. Which was why they were giving two performances.
They were feeling pleased after the first. It was good the show had gone ahead peacefully.
And then the bomb went off.
Someone had thrown it into the performance space from waste ground next door. It caused no damage; it just filled the space with acrid smoke and everyone’s hearts with fear.
And then the lawyer arrived. He had an injunction: a judge had issued an order to forbid the performance.
At which point the armed guards turned against the company. They began disconnecting the lights and disconnecting the sound.
They started to stack the audience’s chairs.
Renata wasn’t frightened any more. She was enraged. She began knocking over the heaps of chairs and screaming at the guards at the top of her voice.
And then a truckload of military police arrived.
They began to guard the street entrance, but Renata pushed past them, flung open the doors, and shouted to the audience who were already queueing for the second show to come in and stop them being censored.
The audience came in, picked up the overturned chairs, and chanted anti-censorship slogans as they waited for the show.
The performance had turned into a demonstration.
Meantime Natalia, having toured the show for three years and being a veteran of hostile injunctions, had read this one and discovered a loophole.
“This order does not prohibit us from performing the play”, she said. “It only prohibits the festival”.
And she tore up the order in front of the military police.
While the authorities all huddled together in the venue’s office to decide what to do, she gave the signal for the show to begin.
Which it did.
And then the owner emerged and said, very apologetically, that in fact because the Festival had hired the chairs and the awning under which the audience was sitting, they were going to have to move.
So they all stood out in the pouring rain and, lit by the building’s outside lights and the audience’s mobile phones, and to the soundtrack sung by Natalia and by the audience, Renata performed the show.
It was a triumph.
But once the audience was gone, Renata, Natalia and Jimmy realised they were in grave danger. They packed up their gear as fast as they could and ran for their lives.
Queen Jesus opened in Brazil on the 26th August 2016. Since then the play has been banned ten times, and suffered attempts to ban it dozens of times more. We have had a bomb thrown on stage, suffered the foulest insults, have been threatened with death and rape on numerous occasions, and have had armed police invading the stage. But the play has also opened up discussions on art, on justice, on politics and on religion. Jesus Queen of Heaven has given me a stronger professionalism as an artist and has amplified my voice as an activist and transpologist (trans*[anthro]pologist). It has taken me to places I thought I would never go toRenata Carvalho
I wrote that play: “The Gospel According to Jesus Queen of Heaven”. And I still perform it.
It imagines Jesus coming back to earth in the present day as a transwoman.
What she says now is the basically the same as what he said then: that trans people, like all human beings, have a right to dignity and to respect.
That like all human beings we deserve to be celebrated and to be loved.
The hatred it inspired, and the protests from devout Christians that continue to this day, reflect the hatred and the prejudices of the society in which we live.
That same hatred was there in the abuse and the mockery and the threats I received when I first began to live openly as a woman; and I internalised it so that it prevented me doing so until I was in my fifties.
It is deeply connected to the misogyny and to the prejudice and to the hatred that causes all women on this planet to suffer everywhere.
Art helps us resist; and it matters that we resist together.
Jo Clifford is an acclaimed author of 100 plays and internationally known as an trans performer and activist. She is founding director of Queen Jesus Productions. The company has continued to work throughout the pandemic, collaborating with NTS and the BBC on 68 Months in Waiting, creating lockdown-responsive digital artworks under the banner of A Space to Bless and supporting the evolution of Scotland’s first all trans, gender non-conforming and non-binary performance ensemble. firstname.lastname@example.org
This post was co-sponsored by The Dangerous Women Project at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH), University of Edinburgh.