Basement Arts’s production of “Jesus Corner,” written and directed by Music, Theatre & Dance freshman Samuel Aupperlee, is as splendid as it is strange. The one-man show, starring Music, Theatre & Dance senior Kieran Westphal as narrator, draws from real-life accounts of people reckoning their sexual identities with their Christian faith. The subject matter is inherently tricky to grapple with, yet the joint efforts of Westphal and Aupperlee prove to be an artistic tour-de-force.
The production uses documentary-style theatre — much of the content is drawn from real-life interviews with people who identify as both Christian and LGBTQ+. These perspectives are shared through a “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” style children’s show, in which the unnamed narrator interviews puppets about their experiences.
The use of handmade puppets to explain Christianity, homosexuality and where they intersect, is one fraught with potential for either extraordinary failure or extraordinary success. After all, we rarely associate religiously-motivated homophobia with sock puppets. Nevertheless, “Jesus Corner” pulls it off.
Westphal’s peppy delivery and colorful puppets contrast sharply with the heavy subject matter. The protagonist named Narrator presents us with three puppets periodically throughout the show. One of them, Pastor Meaning, is a snake puppet in a pastor’s uniform (the biblical irony isn’t lost on me). He appears periodically to explain doctrinal truths, especially those outlining what it means to be “good.” The show starts out with a relatively friendly tone, the presentation seems good-naturedly cheesy. Narrator explains to the “boys and girls” that God’s love is unconditional, but that homosexuality is a sin.
The first half of “Jesus Corner” is intentionally evasive in the way it discusses the struggles of being a gay Christian. The puppets do what puppets do best: They sugarcoat. The sermon repeats the mantras that many a pastor has reiterated in the past decade, those detailing the inherent conditionality in God’s love — “Hate the sin, love the sinner” rhetoric. There is a palpable tonal shift when Narrator’s puppets One and Two detail their experiences coming out to their parents. The dialogue starts out lightly, but quickly takes a grim turn when Two’s parents decide to ignore their homosexuality completely. “They say come as you are, but they don’t really want that,” Two says.
As the puppets tell their stories, the manner in which the Narrator portrays the puppets becomes increasingly erratic. It is heavily implied that he too is struggling with his sexual identity, which becomes evident as the characters of the puppets fade away.
The stage directions detail that the puppets become “clearly inanimate,” and it becomes evident that the Narrator is completely alone. The performative aspect of the puppets is an interesting technique, as it helps the audience differentiate between the performative heterosexuality the Narrator finds himself forced to practice and the reality of his sexual identity. The distinction between meaningless statements about tolerance and the harsh reality of ostracization makes itself visible in a way that’s hard to watch.
“God loves you, just not as you are” is a mantra that is intensely hurtful, but terribly familiar to many who grew up Christian. It’s the mantra that drove me away from religion altogether. It’s the reason I wake up in a cold sweat, terrified of a God I’ve tried my best to renounce. “Jesus Corner” hits particularly close to home because it speaks to not just my fears, but the fears of anyone who has dared to exist outside of the straightlaced (no pun intended) Christian ideal.
Perhaps the most powerful motif in this show is that of crucifixion. Each time the Narrator deviates from his performance of “good Christian heterosexuality,” we hear the scintillating clang of a hammer on nails. This cacophony serves as the soundtrack for the Narrator’s final breakdown, in which he states, “Sometimes all you can do is make some noise and let God know how you feel.” We are left with the final image of the Narrator with his wrists outstretched, stained with red marker, offering himself up as a final atonement.
Even in its COVID-19-altered form, “Jesus Corner” astounds. The oscillation between anguish and erraticism on Westphal’s part is excellently portrayed, and the design concept is simple yet effective. Aupperlee’s script mixes the bizarre with the biting. It hammers at the gruesome reality of homophobia, and the nails run deep.
Daily Arts Writer Darby Williams can be reached at email@example.com.