When comedic actor Slink Johnson was growing up in Arkansas, he had a specific image of Jesus Christ in his mind. âHe was a white man with crisp dresses,â he said. âNever a hair out of place. You had to be nice to him or his dad is going to throw you into a lake of fire, you know what I mean? Speaking on Zoom from his home in Los Angeles, where heavenly sunlight streams through the blinds behind him, he adds, “He was still holding his hands like this. “And he turns his palms up.
None of them portray the version of the Son of God played by Johnson in the sitcom Black Jesus, which ran for three seasons between 2014 and 2019. Johnson’s Christ is an African-American stoner who cools off in his robes, sandals and his crown of thorns in modern style. Compton day. Despite a fondness for weed, he is truly the Messiah, not a very bad boy. He might laugh at next week’s lottery number requests, but he’ll be happy to use his divine power to help you find your keys (“Living room, couch, good pillow”). Anyone who’s unhappy with their lot in life remembers the big man upstairs: “I told you, Pop has a plan.”
It is perhaps one of the most unorthodox depictions of Jesus, but it is also one of the sweetest. Johnson’s loving performance is vital to this. âI want to think he represents the best of me, minus some of my more mundane ways,â he says. Any controversy over Black Jesus was light and could barely survive in the face of the show’s good-natured humor and optimism. âI think people expected it to be bold or too urban or ghetto,â says Johnson. “But he’s got that heartfelt warmth.”
Then again, attitudes towards representations of Christianity have softened since the fury surrounding Brian de Monty Python’s life in 1979. Or, for that matter, Jesus Christ Superstar. Although the show is now accepted as a mainstay of the musical theater canon, its UK premiere in London in 1972 was met with protests, as its star Paul Nicholas recalls. âThere were people outside the Palace Theater with signs,â he says. âCalling something Jesus Christ Superstar was a little dangerous. Things were pretty tricky. He also had that drastic, rocky score. Of course, once people saw the show, they could see that everything was dealt with with the greatest care. “
The same is true of another interpretation of Jesus that provoked an even greater uproar: the one created and performed by playwright Jo Clifford in The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven. âI read the gospels and was incredibly moved by the figure of Jesus,â Clifford tells me. âTo my surprise, I really admired him. I thought of the play I was writing as an act of devotion. I figured it wouldn’t attract any attention. When she arrived in Glasgow in 2009 to perform her play, which takes the form of a sermon, she was instead confronted by protesters who vehemently opposed a transgender woman playing the Son of God as that girl.
Clifford’s play was in part influenced by the hostility she had encountered since she had started living as a woman. âEvery time I went out, people would laugh, point fingers, and shout curses. If you read the gospels, you see that Jesus continually reaches out to the oppressed and prejudiced. The reason these protesters got so angry is that they thought I wanted to attack and defame the Christian religion, but that’s the opposite of where I came from.
In fact, his personal Jesus created lots of believers. âI’ve seen people say, ‘If only church services had been like this when I was a kid.’ Someone else said, ‘You never told me you were going to make a Christian out of me!’ Clifford herself was among the converts. âI wasn’t really a Christian before. My faith was born by reading the gospels, making it into a play, and then year after year performing it. How did she build Jesus as a character? âI couldn’t really tell you,â she laughs. âMy children sometimes say: ‘You make your voice of Jesus!’ So I must have a voice of Jesus, whatever it is. All I do on stage is say the words as honestly as possible and with as much presence as possible. “
Whether Jesus is portrayed as a stoner, a singer, or a trans woman, there is unifying behavior like Christ. This is the point of view of James Burke-Dunsmore, who has played Jesus on hundreds of occasions, most notably as the star of the two-hour Passion play performed annually in Trafalgar Square. âIt’s not a question of appearance,â he said. âI have led other Jesuses, and they have been of all kinds of shapes and sizes. But there is a quality that comes from delivering the text without constantly forcing a point. The most successful Jesuses tend to pass on a teaching or judgment with the expectation that it will come back to them in some sort of back-and-forth manner. People want to receive the text without being hampered by an actor’s ego or selfishness.
For Greg Barnett, who starred in the 2019 History Channel documentary drama Jesus: His Life, becoming the Messiah meant thinking of him only as a man. âIf I saw the enormity of his identity as Jesus, it would have panicked me,â he says. âI got a review that described me as’ physically unremarkable ‘, and at first I thought,’ It hurts. But that was kind of what I was aiming for. I wanted to find that normal in him: to be just a normal guy, with the human pain he went through.
With the exception of Black Jesus, the humor in this context is often conspicuous by its absence, although Paul Nicholas managed to have fun every now and then during his 10-month stint in Jesus Christ Superstar. âDoing it eight times a week is starting to get a bit routine,â he admits. âAnd I could be a little mean sometimes. One night I was waiting in the dark to continue at the start of the second act when a man in the audience sneezed. I whispered, ‘Bless you, my son.’ Very softly, however, so that only the first row can hear! Although the original 1972 production was not filmed, a brief glimpse can be seen in that year’s Christmas special for the BBC sitcom Till Death Us Do Part, when Alf Garnett takes his family to see the show before accosting Nicholas in the bar afterwards to discuss the crucifixion. “Does it hurt up there?” He asks, to which the actor responds, “Well I’m happy when I go downstairs.”
Even for an unbeliever like Nicholas, the crucifixion scene had an emotional impact. âI would go down below the stage and they would tie me to this very thin frame so that when I was up I felt like I was suspended in the air. The audience was very moved by this. All you could hear was the strange person sobbing. I was so upset some nights that tears started to flow. I felt so vulnerable up there, so exposed. It was a religious experience, in a way, without me being religious. It touched me deeply. “
Barnett felt the same when filming his crucifixion scene in Morocco. “It was the most intense and the craziest experience to be hung on the cross looking at the Atlas Mountains, which were covered with snow,” he recalls. âThis is something I will never forget. I was on the cross for a total of three days. On the last day, the sun was setting behind the mountains as they lowered me, and I started to sob uncontrollably. Everything was very peaceful; there was a real serenity on the set. Then it took me about 45 minutes to decompress. It was by no means negative – it was oddly cathartic.
For Nicholas, the role was ultimately still a job. âIt’s always about acting and pretending,â he says. âI left Jesus at the stage door as I left each night. But for Barnett, the game spilled over into his life. âI definitely had more time and love to give to others. You live and breathe your character, so when it’s Jesus, you can’t help but behave like that. Of course, that also looks good on the CV. “Absolutely. My mom loved it when I told her I had the part. We would go out and she would be like, ‘Ooh, can I introduce my son to you, Jesus?’ I was like, ‘Alright, Mom!’ “
According to Johnson, the lessons an actor learns from the role are timeless. âIt’s about everything we learned in kindergarten,â he says. âAll the things we ignored along the way: treat others the way you want to be treated, keep your hands to yourself and be kind. “