In the early 1980s, near the end of my career as a clown, I returned to the States. Through a grant from the Texas Commission on the Arts, I found myself teaching mime and circus skills to high school and middle school students in Huntsville, Texas. I had been teaching theater and clowning workshops during the off season in Europe and discovered that I liked it and was good at it. At 25, I felt like I was transitioning away from performing and thought that teaching might be a new path for me.
Huntsville is one of the stranger places I have lived. The permanent residents of Huntsville number just under 40,000, but this does not include the roughly 20,000 students who attend Sam Houston State University or the 13,000 inmates housed in prisons around Huntsville, which is also the headquarters for the Texas Department of Corrections. The town has a large African American population, but it still shows the remnants of segregation and Jim Crow. For example, the phone book in 1984 listed the Baptist Church and the Baptist Church (colored) at two separate locations. I attended pep rallies at the high school and was astonished to see all of the black students seated on one side of the gym and all the white students on the other. Because the town could only afford one high school, there was integration in the classrooms, but not at the pep rallies or in the cafeteria, where students were free to choose where they sat and with whom.
I worked with students in grades 7 through 12 in their theatre courses, but I also did whatever I could to participate in the greater life of the schools. One day a journalism teacher asked me to help with an assignment. Her students had written down the names of famous people they wanted to interview. She gave me a folder with the students’ submissions and asked me to pick one of the names and portray that person as part of a practice interview. Most of the names were exactly what you might expect: singers like Boy George, Michael Jackson, and Elton John; actors like Molly Ringwald, Eddie Murphy, and Sean Penn. I didn’t want to portray a woman or a black person or a gay person, not because of any sense of identity politics, but because I thought that would just lead to silliness. The next to last piece of paper had one name on it: not Cher or Sting, but Jesus. Oh, yes, I thought.
“We’ll need to be careful,” the journalism teacher said. “But an interview with Jesus will certainly force students to be more creative with their questions.”
I had fairly long hair and a beard at the time. I borrowed a long linen robe from the costume shop, a relic from some past Christmas pageant. Bare-foot, with a piece of rope tied around my waste, I began the exercise with a disclaimer.
“Listen up,” I said. “As part of this interviewing exercise, I’m going to be portraying Jesus. This is not meant to be disrespectful in any way. I am not an expert on Jesus, and my knowledge is very basic. The point of this exercise is to give you experience interviewing someone that you don’t often hear being interviewed. It is not intended to make fun of or be disrespectful to anybody’s religion.”
Okay. I’d said something like “not meant to be disrespectful” twice. That should be good enough.
“What can you tell us about your early life?” the first student asked. Perfect. I was able to tell the whole nativity story without any problems.
“How did you pick your apostles?” another student inquired. I was less certain on this one, but I did at least remember the “fishers of men” story.
“If God is all powerful,” one student began, but I cut him off, answering his question before he could even finish it.
“Can he create a rock so big that he himself can’t lift it?”
The student’s eyes mimicked a character in a Tex Avery cartoon. What the—? How did I know what he was going to ask? I thought I saw him wondering whether I might indeed have god-like powers. I eased his suspicions.
“I’ve listened to that George Carlin album, too,” I said, referring to the “Heavy Mysteries” track from his 1972 album, Class Clown. There was laughter from the other students. The interviewer looked a bit sheepish that I’d caught him out, then smiled when he realized that he’d found another lover of George Carlin in east Texas. The “rock so big” question is actually part of a bigger theological issue called the omnipotence paradox. I didn’t learn this until I started studying the medieval church in graduate school, but when I did it increased my respect for the intellectual aspects of Carlin’s humor. The next question was not so easy to tackle.
“Was Jesus black?” An African-American student posed this question, and it seemed clear that they’d heard something, perhaps in their church, that they expected me to confirm.
Over the centuries, Christ has been depicted as a Greek philosopher, a warrior, a conqueror, a sufferer, an innocent baby, a precocious teen, a shepherd, a magician carrying a wand, long-haired, short-haired, bearded, and beardless. He has been shown with ethnic features ranging from Ethiopian to Chinese. Even Muslims, who know Jesus as the prophet Issa, have offered up descriptions of Christ as a “reddish man of medium height with lanky hair and with many freckles on his face, as if he had just come from a bath.” The Nazis claimed Jesus had Nordic, Aryan features, while Malcolm X famously proclaimed that, “Christ wasn’t white. Christ was a black man. The poor, brainwashed Negro has been made to believe Christ was white to maneuver him into worshiping white men.” The forensic anthropologist Richard Neave “reconstructed” Christ’s face based on a first-century skull from Galilee and writings and art from the time. The image is not meant to depict Jesus, but to show what a contemporary man of the time might have looked like “given the scientific information we’ve got.” The facial features are broader than European depictions, and with an olive complexion—darker, but more Mediterranean than African.
I wouldn’t know any of that until I was deep into my graduate studies years later, but I had heard that “light-skinned Jesus” was probably the invention of white folks, and that black skinned folks probably had their own version of what Jesus looked like.
“He could have been black,” I said. “But I really don’t know.”
Holy mother of God! I thought. This was exactly the kind of thing I’d wanted to avoid with this exercise and then, there I was, in the tall grass. There must have been three or four more questions, but none of them lingered in the air like that one. Did I really just say that Jesus could have been black? In Huntsville, Texas, where the white Baptists worship in a separate church from the black Baptists and the percentage of executed black inmates is 3.25 times greater than that of whites? The principal of Huntsville High School called me into his office the next day. I don’t care how old you are, when you get called to the principal’s office, that feeling you experience in your gut returns as powerfully as when you had it in second grade.
“Uh, Phil … a couple of parents have called and complained about something that happened in the journalism class …”
Luckily, the principal liked what I was doing in his school and just asked me to be more careful next time. But that wasn’t what provocateurs do, I thought to myself. I could have dressed as a high school stoner and portrayed Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and everything would have been fine. Maybe funny. But probably boring, because, to my mind, it didn’t push the envelope far enough.
It is all of a piece. It’s all connected to my life as a clown provocateur, which I now realize has also and always been the life of a teacher. I trace my provocateur lineage back through several generations: from Commedia’s Arlecchino and Shakespeare’s fool to Bugs Bunny and Groucho Marx to Monty Python and Dario Fo. When the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize in literature to the Italian playwright Dario Fo, they praised him as a writer “who emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden.” Yes, that sounds about right. But I also trace my lineage through teachers like Socrates and Peter Abelard, Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky. I aspire to the bravery of these teachers, but have rarely, if ever, lived up to it.