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Jo Clifford in The Gospel According to Jesus Queen of Heaven
Jo Clifford in The Gospel According to Jesus Queen of HeavenPhotography Aly Wright

The revolutionary play that casts Jesus as a trans woman

Jo Clifford debuted The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven ten years ago; she never predicted it would become a rallying cry for LGBTQ rights in Brazil

In 2009, playwright Jo Clifford performed the first production of her new play, The Gospel According to Jesus Queen of Heaven, in a tiny Glasgow theatre. She played the role of Jesus come back to earth from her own perspective, as a trans woman. The play, and Jo, were met with transphobic abuse, protests, online petitions, and death threats from tabloids, online trolls, and religious leaders who called it “an affront to Christian faith.” It was one of the first plays in the UK to be written by, and star, a trans actor.

A decade later, the play is still being performed. Meeting the English-born, Scottish-based playwright in the Traverse Theatre’s dressing room during a short run of the play in Edinburgh in late 2018, we discussed Jesus Queen of Heaven’s impact on its tenth anniversary.

Can you take me back ten years ago – where did Jesus Queen of Heaven come from?

Jo Clifford: I was commissioned to write a sequel to an earlier play (God’s New Frock), which was about the Old Testament. I was just beginning to live as a woman and I was encountering hatred on the street from people shouting abuse at me, saying horrible things, laughing at me. I wondered where this hatred came from. I’d read the Gospels, and when I read them I was profoundly moved. I had been brought up as a Christian and taught that when you’re unsure of what to do, you should try to think, ‘What would Jesus do?’ I thought, ‘Well, what would Jesus do if Jesus came back to earth now and was me, a trans woman? What would she do and what would she say?’ That was the origin of the play.

How was the play first received?

Jo Clifford: My worry had been that people would find it boring, because it was a religious play, and theatre is such a secular place these days. I had said some pretty harsh things about the Bible in my last play and nobody cared and this new play was really in praise of Jesus. So, when I arrived at the theatre and the street was full of protestors I couldn’t believe it. Catholic protestors brought a statue of the Virgin Mary because apparently I’d insulted her. There were Evangelicals that had placards saying, ‘Jesus says my son is not a pervert.’

The demonstration was filmed by the BBC. All the tabloids ran a story about how ridiculous the play was. The Bishop of Glasgow put out a statement saying that it was hard to imagine a greater affront to Christian faith than my play. Then hundreds of thousands of people around the world started having opinions about it. It was a tiny theatre, around 30 people a night, so only 150 people actually saw it during that week’s run, but every night there was a protest. I was traumatised. I hadn’t meant to upset anybody. I was really distressed and frightened but at the same time I thought that there must be something in this play. People who saw it were very moved by it.

Can you explain how Jesus Queen of Heaven went to Brazil, and the impact it’s had there?

Jo Clifford: When we put the play on during the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013, at the end of that show, this amazing woman came up to me and said, ‘Please give me a copy of the script, I want to translate it into Portuguese and do it in Brazil.’ Natalia (Mallo) was so inspired by the play, she sat up and translated it that night. Then she went about the business of trying to find a trans actress to do it. They first performed it in Brazil in September 2016, and they’ve been doing it ever since all over the country.

What has happened is that going to see the show has become a political act in favour of diversity and LGBTQ+ rights and freedom of expression. It’s become an incredibly important play in Brazil. So much so that it’s now dangerous to perform it. So I don’t quite know what’s going to happen next. I’m incredibly proud of the impact it’s had in Brazil, and meeting trans people who have said it’s made a difference there has been amazing. And it’s transformed (actress) Renata (Carvalho)’s life, she’s now a famous actress in Brazil.

Do you think public reception of the play has changed over ten years?

Jo Clifford: Something has happened. I don’t receive death threats any more, and there aren’t people protesting outside this theatre. In Brazil, there is still massive hostility and serious attempts to ban the play which will strengthen now that Jair Bolsonaro has been elected president. But things are moving. Renata managed to get her documentation changed to her real name. The line I say in the play – ‘whatever they say, whatever they do, they cannot stop the change that is coming’ – is absolutely true.

“Going to see the show has become a political act in favour of diversity and LGBTQ+ rights and freedom of expression. It’s become an incredibly important play in Brazil. So much so that it’s now dangerous to perform it” – Jo Clifford

Have you seen a change in trans representation in the arts since you first performed the play?

Jo Clifford: As far as I could tell, I was the only trans performer in the country when it started. Now there are lots more of us, which is fantastic. Things are changing in terms of visibility of trans people. Now, if they try to put a cis actor in for a trans part in a play or film there are protests. People won’t stand for it any more.

It’s still enormously difficult. I’m still discriminated against as an older woman, and as a trans woman. There are very few parts unless I write them for myself. But I think it’s changing, and we are becoming more visible.

Why do you think people are still coming to see the play ten years later?

Jo Clifford: I hope it’s because it’s saying important things. Particularly now, when the world is full of so much hatred and fear, I hope it brings comfort to people. Many people have reported coming out of the show and saying they feel at peace. I’m proud of that.