It’s a reflex action for those in the arts to recoil and get angry when creative work is described as “intolerable blasphemies.” But it’s probably worth giving a small shout out to the America Needs Fatima organization as they protest the production of Colm Toíbín’s The Testament of Mary at the New Repertory Theater in Watertown MA. Why? Because amidst repeated variations of “blasphemy,” “blasphemous” and “blasphemies” in their rhetoric, the group is careful to call for “respectful but firm protest” at one point, and asks that people speak out against the show “legally and respectfully.” I hope that those who hear and choose to answer their call heed those cautions.
America Needs Fatima (ANF) has taken issue with The Testament of Mary before, both in its Broadway production and in a subsequent San Francisco run. They claim that their efforts helped cause the Broadway show to end early and that they prompted many to “turn away” from the San Francisco engagement. Of course, there’s no proof that either is the case. As someone who saw and admired Fiona Shaw’s Broadway performance as well as the play, I recall that it opened during the usual spring crush of new Broadway shows and, without sufficient critical praise, it was indeed closed quickly. But anyone who knows Scott Rudin, the show’s lead producer, knows full well that he wouldn’t back down from protests and his decision was entirely pragmatic and fiscal.
For those who don’t know The Testament of Mary, or Toíbín’s book from which it’s drawn, it is a one-person play about Jesus’s mother, who recounts her son’s experiences both of faith and tragedy. It does show the character questioning the motives of some of Jesus’s associates and reacting with great distress to his crucifixion. While it is certainly does not comport with any of the gospels, it is a serious-minded imagining of what might have been her thoughts, rather than a satire or parody of religious issues, like the film Dogma or the musical The Book of Mormon.
ANF managed to get their newest protest noticed by The Boston Globe, which published an account of their efforts on January 21. The article, by Don Aucoin, spoke with Jim Petosa, artistic director of New Repertory and director of the production. It’s somewhat curious that ANF did not make their organization’s director available to Aucoin for comment, which seems pretty basic protest protocol when dealing with the largest newspaper in the region. As the Globereported, Petosa and the company stand by the decision to produce Testament of Mary, and so the article simply presented the views of both sides as they were available.
However, there was the potential for the article to engender further protest, by bringing ANF’s view of the show to a larger audience. So I asked Petosa about the response since it appeared.
“There’s been more of a positive response from people,” he said. “I’ve gotten e-mails that say things like ‘I’ve been a devout Catholic all my life and I’m glad you’re doing this.’ We’ve gotten more people who are sympathetic than opposed.”
Petosa said that New Repertory’s staff has created a map to show where expressions of support and opposition were coming from, and it shows that there’s local support, with opposition coming from outside the greater Boston area. He observed, “Most of the negative comments are coming from people who couldn’t possibly get to New Repertory.”
I asked Petosa whether he had heard of any plans for in-person protests at the theatre and he said no, but commented, “They’d be more than welcome and we’d invite them in to see the production.”
Petosa chalks the communications against The Testament of Mary up to “a misunderstanding about the intent of the writer and the intent of the theatre,” saying that the goal of the company’s work for audiences was “to enhance their lives, not diminish their convictions.” He also ascribed the rhetoric against the show to being reflective of “the polarity of political discourse,” that it was “born out of orthodoxy.”
Petosa did acknowledge a recurring theme in some communications he’d received opposing the show, saying, “In a couple of letters, there were some intolerant but not surprising statement about Colm Toíbín’s sexuality, but that’s not pervasive. It is people equating blasphemy with homosexuality, revealing their own homophobia.” In one of its online documents about the play, during its Broadway premiere, ANF made a point of noting that it was “being performed and directed by open lesbians.”
The first previews of The Testament of Mary this weekend will overlap with the final performances of New Rep’s production of David Hare’s Via Dolorosa, and Petosa said he wished the two plays could have run concurrently for much longer. “They are thematically connected,” he noted. “They are pilgrimage plays, both journeys to Calvary. I’m eager to see how the dialogue around Dolorosa is affected by Mary, and the other way around.”
ANF’s website asks people to sign a petition urging New Rep to cancel their production, as is their right. But by using their own petition engine, rather than a third party site, it’s impossible to know whether the 30,000 signatures the group claims are genuine, repetitious, or merely coded. In any event, since I first looked at the page several days ago, the signature count is virtually unchanged, so there doesn’t appear to be a groundswell of support for their position.
So ANF will continue to express their opinions against The Testament of Mary, consistent with their past efforts against Taylor Has Two Mommies, Jerry Springer: The Opera and the artist Andres Serrano, among others. As long as they keep their efforts legal and respectful, even an activist with opposing views wouldn’t suggest that they aren’t entirely within their rights, because they are. But perhaps people in the arts community, and in theatre audiences, will drop a note to Jim Petosa and the staff and board of New Repertory, and congratulate them for being unbowed by ANF, and wishing them the best with their newest production.
Thanks to Jacqueline Lawton for her research assistance with this post.
Howard Sherman is director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School College of Performing Arts.