Thu, Dec 23, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Theater scraps controversial Sikh black comedy

UPROAR After the Birmingham Repertory Theatre was beset by violent protesters, it decided to cancel the play on safety grounds, amid counter-protests about free speech

AFP , London

A playhouse in central England on Monday cancelled a black comedy that triggered violent protests over depictions of rape and murder in a fictional Sikh temple.

The Birmingham Repertory Theatre scrapped Behzti (Dishonor) on safety grounds, but Monday's move prompted counter protests by free-speech campaigners and an offer from the Birmingham Stage Company to stage the play instead.

The piece by Sikh actress turned playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, which had sold out its entire run, upset Sikhs enough to prompt a series of demonstrations last week that turned violent on Saturday.

Neal Foster, actor-manager of the Birmingham Stage Company in Britain's second city, offered to fill the void.

"I would be relying on the police, if they were so willing, to look after the theater and its employees to make the play possible," Foster said when contacted by telephone late Monday night.

"I think the theater has to champion freedom of speech and let the police deal with the health and safety of the people involved," he said.

However, Foster hoped that support for the play from free-speech campaigners and other members of the public would cause the Birmingham Repertory Theatre to reconsider what he called its "rash" decision to cancel.

Arts Minister Estelle Morris, a member of parliament from the Birmingham area, backed the Rep's handling of a "very sensitive situation" but said it is "a very sad day for freedom of speech."

Several campaigners for free speech were seen protesting outside the playhouse in Birmingham on Monday night.

The uproar has prompted questions about the limits between freedom of speech and respect for Britain's ethnic minorities, including its 336,000-strong Sikh community which traces its roots to the Indian state of Punjab.

The government sparked concerns for freedom of expression after proposing legislation earlier this year to make incitement to religious hatred a punishable offense.

However, members of the Sikh community received support from members of other religions during debate on Monday in the House of Lords, the unelected upper house of parliament.

Bernard Weatherill, a Christian and independent politician who spoke after Foster's company offered to step in, sympathized with the "Sikh community's distress and anger about that play" and hoped it had been scrapped for good.

Liberal Democrat Lord Navnit Dholakia, a Hindu, said the play had "hurt the deepest feelings" of the Sikhs and compared it to how Salman Rushdie's book, The Satanic Verses, had offended Muslims in the 1990s.

On its Web site (www.birmingham-rep.co.uk), the Rep described Behzti as a "black comedy" about a Sikh woman whose "sick foul-mouthed mother" leads her into a gurdwara, or Sikh temple, where "a past trauma rears its ugly head."

It says the play raises the question: "In a community where public honor is paramount, is there any room for the truth?"

Sewa Singh Mandha, chairman of the Council of Sikh Gurdwaras in Birmingham, said Behzti offends on the grounds of falsehood.

"In a Sikh temple, sexual abuse does not take place, kissing and dancing don't take place, rape doesn't take place, homosexual activity doesn't take place, murders do not take place," he told BBC radio.

Anglican and Roman Catholic church leaders broadly supported their fellow Sikh clergymen, but Hanif Kureishi, one of Britain's most successful writers of south Asian origin, said the show should have gone on.

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