Jesus Christ Superstar, a controversial rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, took the Broadway stage in 1971. Detailing the events leading up to Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, the musical focuses on the emotional struggles of Jesus and his betrayer, Judas Iscariot, that are not detailed in the Bible.
The controversy of the show revolves around the fact that the musical created its own story and happenings about Jesus’final days, which sent many following Christianity into an uproar. But this mainstream controversy about the musical is not what made the University of Colorado at Boulder’s performance of it provocative.
The portrayal of Judas Iscariot is of the utmost importance, since Judas carries the show. It opens with a bold gospel number by the actor portraying Judas, and the show continues to center around the mental struggles Judas deals with when making the decision whether or not to betray Jesus to the government. Judas, usually played by a large man–dark, strong, menacing–was utterly flipped in CU Boulder’s performance of the show. Satya Chavez, a theatre student at CU Boulder, astounded the audience by taking the role of Judas in her own hands, as a woman. With Chavez’s incredible vocal range and obvious emotional attachment to the character, she single-handedly broke gender roles in the theatre.
The debate of gender roles in the theatre can be traced all the way back to Shakespeare, who, although he may have written female roles, wrote for all-male companies, banning women from performing in the theatre. Along with writing for all-male companies, Shakespeare failed to have even 50% of the lines in his shows go to the female-gendered characters; most of his plays had around 30-35% female lines. This trend of oppressing women on the stage continues to be a problem in the contemporary world. According to The Guardian, “Only 38% of the actors employed by the 10 (There’s something missing here: 10 top theatres? 10 main theatres in London? In the world?) theatres in 2011-12 women.”
Along with Satya Chavez contributing to surpassing the female statistic in theatre, her role as Judas versus Jesus shied away from the stereotype of women as submissive, or as an accoutrement to a show. Chavez clearly claimed her territory as the leading character in the show, which goes against the sociological theory of “woman as other.” This theory states that the woman as other is one in which,”‘The Other’ is one who fills what is lacking in the dominant being without the threat a person of equal stature would possess.”
Although Judas is the villain within this story, the essence of Chavez rendering the role of the villain is what makes this situation so unique. Revered as a holy story, Jesus Christ is commonly viewed as the hero, never shadowed by outside”others”, even with his violent death. This musical keeps Jesus himself as a holy creature and the characters remain in their intended standing, but adding a female to the male-dominant ideal of disciples changes the show in numerous ways.
CU Theatre made a bold decision with the casting of Satya Chavez as Judas, and it paid off. This trend of breaking gender roles in the theatre will hopefully continue. Kudos to CU Boulder for taking this risk.