I am currently in India, where I am co-producing a new play, Ali J by Shekinah Jacob, with Evam, a Chennai-based theatre company.
We premiered the production at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe followed by a short tour of India last autumn to a strong critical response. Earlier this year, we remounted the play for a spring tour including performances in Bangalore, Rangashankara and Mumbai – where it had the honour of being part of the official selection of the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival.
The play deals with identity and what it means to be “Indian” today. Telling the story of a Muslim boy, grappling with living in a confused secular state – is he more of a Muslim or more of an Indian? Does he belong to this side of the border or the other? Was partition necessary; is it even relevant today? Is Ali J a Gandhi or is he a Jinnah?
This current tour of the play has resulted in a wave of protest in India from a right-wing Hindu fundamentalist group, which has resulted in both the play and our actor receiving police protection in Rangashankara and Bangalore. The subsequent cancellation of its Mumbai Festival run two days before its performances was the result of one fundamentalist group filing a complaint with the local police station that the play was “anti-national”.
The complaint lodged by them saw the police approach the festival who advised them to call off the play for “security purposes” – which the festival organisers reluctantly chose to do. All these various incidents have gone onto receive considerable news coverage in India. In the run up to April 2014′s election, it has also ignited again the debate about freedom of speech in India and seen a number of India’s leading actors and writers who have taken to twitter, calling for the end of censorship.
The actual protest towards our play all stems from a small group of individuals. None of these right-wing fundamentalists themselves have, at this time, actually seen the play despite being invited to do so and along with the invitation to discuss their issues with the creative team. However, they have gained attention and notoriety in celebrating online their success at not just our production being halted but that of other theatre, events, music and literature where they have raised similar protest.
In New Zealand, just over two weeks ago, Odd Future, an American hip-hop collective co-founded by Tyler the Creator, was banned 12 hours before leaving Los Angeles to appear as one of the support acts for Eminem at his concert in Auckland.
In the few days prior to the concert, there had been a campaign waged by a local pressure group (and stemming from one letter sent to a local councillor) objecting to the lyrical content of Odd Future. It is fair to say that the band’s lyrics can be unpleasant and challenging but no more so than Eminem, the artist for whom they were opening and to whom no objection was made.
What is perhaps interesting is that in the revoking the group’s visa entry just hours before their departure, Immigration New Zealand released a statement saying the ban on allowing Odd Future into the country to perform had nothing to do with its lyrics but a “potential threat to public order”. This is in spite of the fact that the group had previously played in New Zealand. The timing of their remark does far more in appearing to counter-foil any argument it was to prevent freedom of speech.
I am not a particular fan of Odd Future music but I do not agree banning them from entering New Zealand to perform any more than I do with the storm of protests directed towards Shekinah Jacob’s play. At the heart of this, and whether one likes the work or agrees with the content or not, is the question and right of freedom of speech.
If in a country like New Zealand where censorship is abolished, one letter of complaint to Auckland Council can result in such uproar and artists being banned from performing, then we need to think carefully of the danger and risk this can cause if the system was to become abused.
As a result, and in protest ourselves towards Ali J’s Mumbai season being cancelled, we moved the performance to YouTube showing it on-line at the actual time the performance would have taken place and allowing an audience viewing it to make up their own minds. This is something we would not have been able to do as extensively had today’s social media not existed, and where in some countries this still remains heavily restricted. However, the ability through the internet to give anyone a platform with more power than ever before could become a toxic environment if not handled responsibly and that is both true for provocateur or campaigner.
Odd Future’s lyrics or Ali J’s subject matter, as with other artists or playwrights who are creating work like them, provokes debate – but that is perhaps also the point of it. Should we not be having these discussions about what they are saying openly and coherently in the same way Odd Future and Shekinah Jacob’s play lays these all out before us? Like any other artists from across the spectrum of all creative mediums, they have the absolute right to a freedom of speech. Whether we agree with them or not, we alone must then have the right to make a decision for ourselves about supporting it, financially or otherwise. This should be a constitutional right for everyone and while this is a privilege we are afforded in countries where censorship has been abolished, it is certainly not the case in every country. We therefore need to be the keepers of our own moral compass and if we are no longer being directly given that opportunity, then an incident of a hip-hop group stopped getting onto a plane, or a performance cancelled in India, takes on an altogether darker and more dangerous meaning.