The New York theater scene is known for putting on some of the most controversial plays, but not when it comes to the monologue Mohammed Gets a Boner. The Sheen Center for Thought and Culture in Greenwich Village made a recent decision to cancel Playwrights for a Cause, a benefit supporting the National Coalition Against Censorship, on the grounds that the they “will not be a forum that mocks or satirizes another faith group.”
A single-act monologue by critically acclaimed playwright and filmmaker Neil LaBute, Mohammed Gets a Boner was to be one of the four plays originally included in Playwrights for a Cause, which is backed by Planet Connections Theater Festivity. The play is a “clear offense to Muslims,” claimed executive director of the Sheen Center, William Spencer Reilly. “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’s words are not uncommon in the world today. From established institutions to university conferences and even public library events, the effects of the Charlie Hebdo attacks have percolated into the larger creative community and have been most definitely felt in the cautious way that people have begun exercising free expression about religion — expression that is now frequently self-censored out of a fear of great external repercussions.
The most upsetting part of the Sheen Center’s decision to cancel the show, though, is that LaBute’s play was to be part of a larger program to open conversations specifically about censorship and this fear that people have adopted. As LaBute himself pointed out:
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 Web site… 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.
But the Sheen Center wouldn’t budge on their decision, perhaps as Deadline Hollywood notes, based on their own status as an institution funded by the Archdiocese of New York. Whatever their reasons are, the fact is that although this was a play meant address controversial subject matter that has all but become taboo, it was doing so to fuel “a discussion of whether or not it’s all right to poke fun at religion or religious figures,” said Glory Kadigan, the founder of Planet Connections. The changing of the spelling of Muhammad to Muhammed was further meant to be a defining indicator that the play was not some blasphemous piece, but this point was lost not only on the Sheen Center, but also on several other established institutions who refused to even print the name of the monologue for fear of the public outrage.
The Sheen Center benefit was meant to celebrate free speech and oppose censorship in one of the most open cities in the United States. In a later statement, LaBute officially withdrew from the Playwrights for a Cause event. “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.”
Despite the Sheen Center’s timidity, the NCAC benefit has found another home at the nearby New York Theatre Workshop, but ther performance will include only three of the original plays — LaBute pulled his play because he didn’t want to overshadow the work of the other playwrights. LaBute also praises the work that NCAC and other advocates are doing to keep speech free in all venues:
[The NCAC is] 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.
Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!