Trans Jesus was meant to be 'positive' says playwright Jo Clifford

jo clifford
Image caption Jo Clifford is performing the play at the Traverse in Edinburgh

Almost a decade after it was first performed Jo Clifford says her play The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven is still provoking "extraordinary violence and hatred but at the same time very intense love".

The one-woman play which portrays a transgender Christ has most recently toured Brazil, where it has become the "most talked-about" show there sparking both strong protests and devotion.

Clifford says everyone involved in the Brazilian production has "really suffered".

Image caption Renata Carvalho performs the lead role in Brazil

"They've all received horrible death threats," she says.

"The last festival they did it at armed police turned up and started to dismantle the theatre while the show was still going on and someone threw a smoke bomb into the auditorium."

Image caption It has played to sold-out audiences in Brazil

However, there has also been a strong positive response, Clifford says of the show which has sold-out wherever it has gone.

"Every time I go to Brazil I meet people, particularly trans people, who tell me with tears in their eyes that this show has really changed their lives.

"It has changed the way they think about themselves."

Image caption Jesus, Queen of Heaven was first performed at the Tron in 2009

The play had its controversial premiere at Glasgow's Tron Theatre as part of GlasGay! in 2009.

Clifford, 68, told BBC Scotland: "It happened at a time when I had just started to live as a woman and every time I went out in the street people yelled abuse at me or laughed in my face or threatened me with violence or in many ways were just horrible to me.

"I could not understand why and I thought 'where does all this hostility come from?'."

She says the churches were particularly hostile and she decided to see if there was anything in the New Testament that would give her a clue why she was being treated this way.

"When I read the Gospels there was no justification for this kind of behaviour," she says.

"It was absolutely clear to me that Jesus was someone who welcomed everybody, particularly those who were suffering from prejudice or rejection from the society around them.

"I was deeply moved by what I read. I was very surprised."

Shocked and distressed

According to Clifford, she wrote the play as "an act of homage" to Jesus and never intended to mock or insult Christianity.

However, the Tron performance in 2009 attracted hundreds of protesters.

"The archbishop of Glasgow said it was hard to imagine a greater affront to the Christian church than me," Clifford says.

"I was very shocked and very distressed by that."

"Everybody who hates the show has never bothered to see it."

Clifford was hurt by the level of hostility the play had generated but at the same time she knew she had touched a nerve and that the play was important.

On my own

She wanted to continued to perform it but venues, producers and directors were "too scared to touch it", she says.

"I was on my own for a bit until I met Susan Worsfold and then Annabel Cooper, the producer, and together we decided we would do it," she says.

It was not until 2014 that she brought it back for a late-night performance at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Clifford says it played to small audiences but among them was Brazilian director Natalia Mallo - who asked if she could translate Clifford's play into Portuguese.

It has been performed on its recent Brazilian tour by Renata Carvalho and has become an emblem for LGBT rights in a country where freedoms are being challenged.

Enormous changes

Clifford says the play has a positive message which is "we need to learn to try to love each other and not to judge or condemn".

The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven is now returning to the Scottish stage at the Traverse theatre in Edinburgh.

Clifford says Scotland's attitude to trans issues has changed enormously over the past decade.

"In those years I think I was the only 'out' trans performer there was," she says.

"There are loads of us now doing wonderful work. That's a big difference.

"Scotland is very much in the lead in respect for trans rights. It makes me very proud to be Scots and be performing this play in Scotland."