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When A Benefit Against Censorship Gets Censored

Entrance to the New York Theater Workshop, the new venue for “Playwrights for a Cause." "NYTW entrance" (Photo via Wikimedia)
Entrance to the New York Theater Workshop, the new venue for “Playwrights for a Cause” (photo via Wikimedia)

A New York benefit show for the National Coalition Against Censorship cancelled last week over allegedly offensive material will go on at a new venue — though without the Mohammed-themed play that first started the controversy.

The one-act play, written by acclaimed playwright Neil LaBute specifically for the event, was titled Mohammed Gets a Boner; it was about an actor asked to perform in an offensive satire. “The prophet ‘Mohammed’ stands on a barren stage, recalling the first time he made love to a white woman,” a since-pulled description on the event’s website explained. “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?”

It was to be performed as part of “Playwrights for a Cause,” the June 14 opening night event for the month-long Planet Connections Theater Festivity at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture. According to the AP, the rental facility opened last year with funding from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York. Executive director William Spencer Reilly called the play offensive to Muslims, saying he cancelled the benefit after reading through its script following an employee’s discovery of its provocative title online.

LaBute, whose play The Way We Get By is now running at Second Stage, was stunned. “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,” he said following the cancellation. He decided to pull the play himself, explaining, “I am honestly not interested in stirring hatred or merely being offensive; I wanted my play to provoke real thought and debate and I now feel like that opportunity has been lost and, therefore, it is best that I withdraw the play from Playwrights For A Cause.” The rescheduled benefit at the New York Theater Workshop will feature three already-scheduled one-act plays about artistic censorship by Erik Ehn, Halley Feiffer, and Israel Horovitz.

While the Sheen Center is a private venue and had the right to cancel the benefit, the irony of its actions is hard to ignore. Reilly defended his position to the New York Times, saying, “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.”

That statement leads one to believe the venue only hosts events that align with its general values; so by originally booking a benefit against censorship, it was expressing its support for freedom of artistic expression. To then cancel the event because it would contain an offensive reference to Mohammed suggests it doesn’t believe critical or even blasphemous discussion of the Islamic prophet falls within the territory of free speech, but of hate speech — a stance supported by some, as recently demonstrated in the whole PEN Literary Gala debacle. To many more, it will feel like a dangerous concession to religious extremists.

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