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Ottawa Fringe play explores being queer and Christian

GodVerbatim was formed out of transcripts and cast vignettes from The god Monologues

Left to right (back row): David Sherwin, Terry Thompson, Laura Lake, Tom Sherwood, Michael Azonye, (front row) Bryan Girard, Kathleen Grady-Thompson, Justine Sousa, Rosemary Nolan and directors Eleanor Crowder and Anna Lewis. Credit: supplied

Queer Christian doesn’t have to be an oxymoron.

Jessica Rousseau, an Ottawa native who was raised Pentecostal, explores coming to terms with being queer and Christian in godVerbatim, at the Ottawa Fringe Festival from June 20 to 28.

“I’m doing a piece where I talk about my transition from being a very idealistic Pentecostal Christian to kind of realizing that religion doesn’t have to be that way,” says Rousseau, who identifies as pansexual. “I took my own journey of continuing my Christian faith but also recognizing that I didn’t fit into the typical mould of what you’d consider to be a Christian.”

The play originated when Tom Sherwood, a United Church minister and Carleton University professor, interviewed 600 students at Carleton and asked them about their impressions of faith and spirituality.

“He was particularly interested in those who no longer had a community, so he was really trying to give voice to those who did not have a particular religion,” Rousseau says.

Last year, Sherwood gave transcripts of the interviews to Faith and Arts Ottawa, a new United Church ministry aimed at using the arts as a vehicle for people to explore their faith. Faith and Arts Ottawa used the transcripts to create The god Monologues.

This year, the organization used different verbatim excerpts from the original 600 interviews and added vignettes from the cast’s own experiences to create godVerbatim.

Directed by Eleanor Crowder and Anna Lewis, godVerbatim features a diverse cast of 16 men and women of varying ages, sexual orientations and religious backgrounds, including atheist and agnostic, Rousseau says.

“Our goal with this performance is really to present the idea that despite having different beliefs, or maybe no beliefs, you can still connect with another person on the basis that we’re all spiritually searching,” she says. “We definitely are being very tactful with the material because we want to present the positive side, the good that can come of this rather than the critical aspects of it, which has been done so many times.”

Rousseau says having a safe, creative space to express being queer and being Christian has been cathartic. She was also able to share the experience with her fiancé and fellow cast member, Laura Lake, who is trans.

“Most of my queer friends, you say the word Christian and they clam up, and most of my Christian friends, you say the word transwoman and they clam up,” Rousseau says. “This was just a space where you could put both those things in the same sentence and nobody even blinked an eye.”

Although godVerbatim is presented with the aim of respecting everyone’s right to their beliefs and aims to be a positive experience for audience-goers, the play doesn’t shy away from difficult subject matter, Rousseau says.

“What I like about [godVerbatim] is definitely how free and open Faith and Arts Ottawa has allowed us to be, in keeping with the Fringe mandate that anything goes,” she says. “Some of these experiences are very radical or harsh or strange, and we have a place to tell them here, which is really cool.”