UPDATE, WEDNESDAY, 9:15 AM: “Playwrights For A Cause,” a one-act showcase launching the Planet Connections Theater Festivity, will now be presented on June 14 at the New York Theatre Workshop, but without Neil LaBute’s contribution. The playwright released a statement explaining he did not want his play to detract from “the fine work that Erik Ehn, Halley Feiffer and Israel Horovitz were also presenting that evening…and the cause of the evening itself.” The program is a benefit for the National Coalition Against Censorship.
A June showcase of four short plays addressing the critical and growing incursion of censorship into arts and culture has been cancelled by the presenting venue, Greenwich Village’s Sheen Center for Thought and Culture. The key issue was Mohammed Gets A Boner, a monologue that LaBute contributed to the quartet of plays.
William Spencer Reilly, executive director of the self-described non-sectarian Sheen Center, told the New York Times that when the contract for the event was signed in February, he wasn’t aware of the title of the play (which the Times deemed unfit to print).
Glory Kadigan, the founder of Planet Connections, described the LaBute work as “a discussion of whether or not it’s all right to poke fun at religion or religious figures.” She said the group didn’t have titles or scripts when the contract was signed.
The decision reflects the held values of the Sheen Center, which is funded by the Archdiocese of New York. But it also points to a global climate of fear and self-censorship that has grown in recent years, and in particular since the January murder in Paris of staff members of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, which had prominently published caricatures some Muslims deemed offensive. In New York theater circles, the cancellation also was a chilling echo of the threats against the leadership of the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1998, when it scheduled Terrence McNally’s play Corpus Christi, which some Catholics deemed offensive because of its nontraditional portrayal of Jesus.
After reading LaBute’s script, Reilly said, he nixed the show because of the play’s “clear offense to Muslims.”
“When an artistic project maligns any faith group, that project clearly falls outside of our mission to highlight the good, the true, and the beautiful as they have been expressed throughout the ages,” Reilly said, adding that the center “will not be a forum that mocks or satirizes another faith group.”
LaBute, whose new play, The Way We Get By starring Thomas Sadoski and Amanda Seyfried opens off-Broadway next week at Second Stage, said the Sheen Center was “was absolutely within their right” to cancel the contract but added that he’s “saddened” by the decision.
“This event was meant to shine another light on censorship and it was unexpected to have the plug pulled, quite literally, by an organization that touts the phrase ‘for thought and culture’ on their very website,” LaBute said. “Both in life and in the arts, this is not a time to hide or be afraid; recent events have begged for artists and citizens to stand and be counted.”
The play, which was written for the event, centers on an actor asked to perform in an offensive satire. A description posted online reads: “The prophet ‘Mohammed’ stands on a barren stage, recalling the first time he made love to a white woman. Is this reality or a theatrical convention? Where do the lines between ‘satire’ and ‘censorship’ intersect or is nothing sacred when it comes to the theater?” LaBute told the Times that the play does not depict “the actual prophet ‘Muhammad’ (spelled differently than my title).”
LaBute earlier praised the Coalition Against Censorship for “doing really important work at a time when people are actively striving to take away some of our most basic freedoms. I, for one, feel that these are the front lines for an artist–when you are asked to write/fight for what you’ve said you believe in. It is no longer enough to pay lip service to these ideas–it’s time to stand up and be counted.”