Last week, the highest state court in São Paulo, Brazil cleared the way for a censored play to take the stage once again. In a unanimous decision, the São Paulo Court of Justice said an injunction to block the performance of The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven — in which the trans artist Renata Carvalho plays a transgender Jesus Christ — was unconstitutional.
In the decision, Judge J. L. Mônaco da Silva wrote that the earlier injunction would effectively “forbid artistic activity” and amounted to “true cultural aggression.” In other words, the court interpreted the injunction as censorship, in contradiction of the Brazilian Constitution.
The play was written by the England-born, Scotland-based playwright Jo Clifford, and reflects her experiences as a church-going trans woman. Clifford was ostracized from her church in Scotland after she transitioned.
The one-woman show — staged as a church service, complete with a sermon, the telling of parables, singing, and the breaking of the bread — recounts the story of Jesus Christ, living in the present as a trans woman. It sheds light on intolerance faced by transgender people. But it also brings a message of forgiveness and acceptance, according to Natalio Mallo, the Argentinean-born director.
Mallo told Hyperallergic that, after seeing Jo Clifford as Queen of Heaven at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, she felt compelled to spread The Gospel throughout Brazil, where she has lived since 1995. The country recently experienced a disturbing increase in transphobic violence: more trans people are murdered in Brazil than in any other country. Last year, a video of the murder of Dandara dos Santos — a trans woman who was tortured, beaten and shot by a group in the northeastern state of Ceará — went viral, horrifying many Brazilians and drawing belated attention to violence and discrimination.
Securing funds for the show wasn’t easy. Mallo said that every funder she approached turned her down, and she encountered skepticism throughout the theater world in Brazil. The show finally opened in 2016, at the Londrina International Festival, a theater gathering held in the socially progressive southern state of Paraná. After minor incidents, such as a last-minute change of venues and a few angry emails, the show went on to tour in Brazil and received critical acclaim, provoking the dialogue that it was meant to create.
Then, last September, the backlash escalated. When the show reached Taubaté, a medium-size industrial city between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, police had to be called in to protect Carvalho from protesters. When they started screening people who were waiting to get in, “people started leaving the line,” Mallo said. “There was a rumor going on that people had rocks in their pockets to stone us.”
As the tour went on, the director started receiving death threats via Facebook. Once, she said, someone slashed the tires on her car. Finally, during a wave of rising social conservatism, a local court in of Jundiaí, north of São Paulo, sided with the protesters by blocking the performance of The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven. Judge Luiz Antonio de Campos Júnior granted an emergency injunction against the play, describing it as “disrespectful to a religion,” “aggressive,” and of an “extremely low intellectual level.” Similar efforts followed in Salvador, in the state of Bahia, where petitioners argued that by depicting Jesus as a trans woman, the play violated their freedom of religion.
“We have laws in the Constitution that protect both sides, but in this case the judge failed to consider other facts,” Filipe de Campos Garbelotto, who leads diversity efforts at the Brazilian Bar Association of Bahia, told Hyperallergic. The play provokes a dialogue by reimagining Christ as a persecuted minority; simply reinterpreting a religious symbol should not be considered offensive to a religion, said Garboletto, who joined the legal fight as amicus curiae. He added, “A transgender person who believes in a transgender Jesus would most likely never file a lawsuit against the showing of a heterosexual Jesus.”
Brazil adopted constitutional protections for artists after a military dictatorship stifled freedom of speech and the arts, from 1964 to 1985. During that period, artists such as the musician Caetano Veloso, the architect Oscar Niemeyer, the filmmaker Glauber Rocha, the theatre practitioner Augusto Boal, and the painter and scupltor Hélio Oiticica were persecuted with imprisonment, exile, even torture. In 1988, Brazil passed its current constitution, which specifically protects artists by stating “intellectual, artistic, scientific, and communication activity is free, independent of any censorship or license.”
Mallo, the play’s director, remains cautious. Overall, she believes artistic freedoms are shrinking. “The situation is getting worse. It’s a desperate situation, a moment of darkness,” she said. “The mask is down, and the reactionaries are coming out of the closet.”
The Gospel According to Jesus has continued touring in the rest of Brazil. This week, it will return to São Paulo for a festival at the Teatro de Contêiner Munguzá. In a lineup of 11 one-woman shows, Carvalho is the only trans performer.
“People might not agree with the content of the show,” said Judge J. L. Mônaco da Silva in his decision. “But that’s not enough reason to knock on the doors of the Court to ban its performance. Just don’t watch it!”