The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven, is an Australasian premiere play putting a transgender playwright and performer at the forefront – it asks us to stop and think: how inclusive are we really?
For Kristen Smyth, who is a transgender performer playing a role written for a trans woman, the question is both personal and universal.
“Jesus Queen’s stories force us to consider the marginalisation of communities – be they gender, race, colour or creed – but with the added nuance of giving voice to these experiences through a trans lens,” says Smyth. “I’m a trans woman and graduated from the VCA’s writing course in 2019 and I’ve brought my trans dramaturgical lens to my early plays – characters and worlds that live through, beyond or outside of the norm – but this is my first opportunity to hone these viewpoints as a performer, so I’m incredibly honoured to be asked to explore these questions with such a seminal text.”
Smyth posits that the world as we knew it has changed so much in the last 12 months and all conventions have been upended. “There is great uncertainty and fear about what life might be like and I believe this resonates completely with my own as a trans woman, searching for authenticity and questions of acceptance – both at a societal and personal level – I’ve been battling hostility and rejection for so much of my life and like so many of us in the queer community I’m a survivor and God knows the world needs courage champions now more than ever.”
The play is both provocative and challenging, but, according to the production team, it’s not watching or reading the play that is most powerful, it is how the play reads you, and brings your own hidden thoughts into the light.
Having been described as both an ‘affront to the Christian faith’ and ‘moving and infinitely graceful’, Smyth reminds us that the former come to those views without having seen the show and the later have personal testimony to the emotional strength of this work because they bought a ticket!
The unique show combines theatre with storytelling and ritual to produce a rare and beautiful reflection on the life of Jesus, a transgender one, and a provocative meditation on a more truthful and generous interpretation of her words.
Smyth explains that playwright Jo Clifford has constructed a delightful and deceptively simple collection of anecdotes and re-tellings from scripture that challenge our sense of what we think is OK. “It’s a gentle weaving of familiar scenes that has captured my own experience in finding my authentic self,” says Smyth. “I think that’s an important moment for all of us as humans. We spend such little time on this planet it seems a shame to waste so much of that opportunity keeping ourselves small.”
As bleak as the COVID year has been, it has also instigated many pivotal and vital social conversations. From BLM, bigotry, racism and sexual harassment charges, it has been a year fuelled by strong voices for social awareness and justice. For Smyth, this work embodies that ignition for fuelling conversation and action.
“In Brazil we’ve seen this work become a focus point for an extraordinary social justice campaign on behalf of not just the nation’s travesty who are beaten, tortured and often killed but for all those who live on the margins and are at the forefront of hatred and maltreatment,” she says. “Trans women have exponentially higher rates of abuse, self-harm and suicide and I’ve had my own experiences of unbearable pain and rejection – often at the most personal family level. There’s a scene in the play where we revisit the parable of the Good Samaritan – a beautiful trans woman comes by and helps the stranger and the question is put – which one of the bishop, the policeman or the Queen is thy neighbour and is it really that difficult – and the answer is yes AND no.”
In fact, for Smyth, the work becomes a song of encouragement and inclusiveness.
“To be brave children. To walk towards the light. Jesus Queen talks of angles and light and courage and possibility but most of all we are encouraged to leave this show having been reminded of the power of love,” she says.
Smyth is a graduate of the VCA writing course and has written three trans plays since then – No Ball Games Allowed which fortyfive downstairs have scheduled for later this year, Pin Drop which the VCA now includes in its list of plays for student productions and her most recent work that considers the journey of a cis male accused of killing a woman – “Haha, you can see where I’m coming from with that one,” Smyth quips.
Smyth admits to suppressing her true self for far too long, and is now just honoured to be living this authentic life, and to be performing this work, which she describes as just the most complete gift. “I can’t thank Jo and my director Kitan Petkovski enough.”
Director Petkovski asked Smyth to read the part a year ago with Smyth having no idea it would lead to this. “I’ve seen one or two amazing works around the world this year – Travis Alabanza’s play Overflow at the Bush Theatre in London featured Reece Lyons in her debut performance which I caught on livestream – amazing! Kitan and I spoke to Mick Klepner Roe at Embittered Swish about their work in Melbourne and they had a revival recently and I was lucky enough to be introduced to a number of trans performers by Alyson Campbell, in particular Lazlo Pearlman in the UK who has been inspirational.”
Smyth acknowledges that so much more needs to be done to include trans stories and trans artists delivering those stories on our stages. “… and not just as gestures to the zeitgeist but because these are extraordinary stories, often told with an emotional clarity and resonance that takes an audience’s breath away.”
After viewing, it is Smyth’s hope that people walk a little taller, be a little wiser and be inspired to bring that quality of love and acceptance that Jesus Queen offers to us all. “This work is a gift and we should feel blessed to receive it.”
In 2016, at the epicentre of an anti-censorship and human rights movement in Brazil, Jo’s play is still touring South America years after its triumphant arrival. In 2021, Queen Jesus will make her Australasian debut at Theatre Works as part of Midsumma Festival with Kristen Smyth in the iconic role.
April 30 – May 8
Images: Sarah Walker