“Do you care if Jesus is a righty or a lefty?” Jasmine Myers asks during a rehearsal for Godspell. She’s just finished showing me the sign language translation she’s created for the chorus of the song “Beautiful City.”
“You’re a lefty,” I respond, “Do whichever’s more comfortable for you.”
In Still Small Theatre’s upcoming production of Godspell, Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelek’s quirky musical retelling of the Gospel, Jesus is left-handed and prays in sign language. Jesus gets the group’s attention by imitating a Southern Baptist preacher, turns a card-reading session into a game of Go Fish, and gives a lot of hugs. Jesus wears a patchwork skirt and a flower crown. In this production, Jesus is a woman.
The idea of casting a female actor in the role of Jesus is not unique to Still Small’s Godspell. In school and community theatre productions, the roles of Jesus and Judas are often played by female actors. And in some cases it can work quite well.
Jasmine Myers, Still Small co-founder and CEO, portrays Jesus in our production of Godspell. “I do get a little nervous that people might think we’re being ‘revisionist’ or disregarding the historical Jesus,” she writes, “but then again, while the historical Jesus wasn’t a woman, neither was he white, or a speaker of English, and we generally understand when watching white English-speaking actors portray Jesus that the actor is helping us to connect with who He is more than what He was.”
Our Godspell takes place in Salem, MA: a city whose infamous history has shaped its present culture, for better or for worse. “We’re performing in a place where a lot of people have been very wounded by religion, and where a lot of people associate Christianity with destructive patriarchal attitudes,” Jasmine writes. “Many are suspicious of Christianity, many have very skewed ideas of who Jesus is and what He stands for, and many feel safer around women. Ironically, playing Jesus as a woman may be key to helping our audience connect with the real Jesus.”
The Jesus we see in the Gospels was a true ally to women in a society that was far less egalitarian than twenty-first century America. I am always struck by His interactions with the Samaritan woman at the well, with the woman caught in adultery, with Martha and Mary of Bethany, and so many others: by His validation of them outside of the roles society has placed them in, His refusal to condemn or allow anyone else to do so. They are as welcome as anyone else to learn from Him, offer their gifts to Him, and present their requests to Him––and often they understand what Jesus is about better than His male followers do.
That was one of the reasons I decided we would not try to conceal the fact that the actor playing Jesus is a woman. I want our audience to see a community where women do not have to hide or apologize for their femininity in order to be accepted, valued, and honored.
In this show,
- John the Baptist recognizes Jesus as the rightful leader of the group, giving up his own leadership role to follow her.
- Male and female disciples both recognize that they have something to learn from this person.
- She doesn’t play power games or try to manipulate the men in the group.
- They don’t belittle her ideas or reject her authority simply because she is a woman.
It sends a powerful message about what female leadership can and should look like. And it also broadens our perspective of who God is beyond patriarchal authority.
“One of the exciting things about playing Jesus as a woman is that it will hopefully help people to break out of the mindset of thinking we’re supposed to visualize God as male,” Jasmine writes. “Genesis refers to the image of God as ‘male and female’; the Holy Spirit is referred to with a feminine noun in Hebrew (Ruah), and so if we can’t see the feminine in God, we’ve got a problem. And it’s not just a theoretical or semantic problem; it’s a problem for the myriad of people in our society who are, for one reason or another, in great need of feminine love. Human beings seem wired to fulfill their intimacy needs by any means possible; how can we expect people to overcome broken maternal relationships and keep from having destructive relationships with women, if they cannot receive motherly love from God? It is our hope that this portrayal of Jesus will help people be able to receive that love.”
We’re rehearsing a scene in the second act where Jesus stops the rest of the group from stoning a woman who “was caught in the very act of adultery” by telling them, “That the one of you who is faultless shall throw the first stone”. Jasmine kneels on the floor, placing herself between the cowering woman and the departing crowd. She looks up at me. “I was thinking of a mom hug here,” she says, “Would that be okay?”
“Let’s see it,” I reply.
Still on her knees, she hugs the other woman, in a gesture that is both comforting and fiercely protective. She holds her for a long moment. She kisses her on the forehead. If she were a man, this kind of intimacy would mean something very different. But coming from one woman to another, there are no strings attached; just complete acceptance, unconditional love.
Everything I want my co-workers, my neighbors, and friends in this city to know about Jesus is summed up in that hug. Maybe some people will be put off by this casting choice. But maybe others will see God’s love for them in a way that they never have before, and I hope it will lead them one step closer to the outstretched arms of the real, living Jesus.