Sunday, July 29, 2018

Epitaph for a festival that collaborates with its censors

Yesterday I was so relieved and happy that my dear friends and colleagues Renata Carvalho and Natalia Mallo and our sister theatre company had safely got away from the danger they were in as they presented my play "The Gospel According To Jesus Queen of Heaven" in the winter festival of the Brazilian city of Garanhuns.

And I was proud they acquitted themselves so well in the chaos and the danger of that final performance. They made an incredibly powerful and courageous stand for human rights and for artistic freedom of expression.

I am still so proud of them today. Proud, also, that we work together and that this Brazilian version of the play is our joint creation.

But I am also furiously angry. The way they've been treated by this festival and this city is a total disgrace.

What kind of festival is it, I ask myself, that operates under the slogan "Long Live Liberty"; that invites a play to be part of it, and then abruptly withdraws the invitation at the last minute because it allegedly offends the Christian church. Is that how you celebrate liberty?

And what kind of festival is it that having been told its actions in withdrawing the invitation are illegal, cancels its cancellation, re-inserts the play into its programme, and then withdraws it again just as the performance is beginning?

What kind of festival is it that then stands by while armed police arrive in armoured vans, cut off power to the production's sound system, cut off the power of its lighting? A police force that first attempts to lock the public out of the theatre, and then, having failed to do so, takes the seating away from the audience and removes the cover of the theatre, forcing audience and performer to endure the pouring rain?

What kind of festival is it that not only fails to protect its artists but also literally dismantles their performance space while they are performing?

It has a name. It's called the Festival Internacional de Garanhuns, FIG for short. And no self respecting artist should ever agree to perform there again.

And what kind of mayor, I ask myself, having been given the opportunity to welcome artists and public to his city's arts festival and the opportunity to present his city as a diverse, safe and welcoming place... chooses instead to broadcast and celebrate its prejudice and hatred?

He has a name: Izaias Regis. And he has covered his city in ignominy and in shame.

And what kind of High Court judge, I ask myself, grants an injunction prohibiting a play's performance and displays in his judgement a total ignorance of the play's meaning and content?

What kind of High Court judge hands out a judgement that contradicts both the laws and the constitution of his own country? The country whose legal system he is supposed to be upholding?

What kind of High Court judge could possibly be so ignorant and so prejudiced as to do that?

He too has a name: Roberto da Silva Maia. He is a total disgrace to his profession.

And what kind of religious leader, I ask myself, so manifestly and shamelessly fails to protect and defend the victims of prejudice in his diocese? So disgracefully misleads his flock by failing to uphold the one commandment Jesus said was at the centre of his whole teaching?

It is the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself, Dom Paulo Jackson Nóbrega de Sousa, Bishop of Garanhuns. Please think about it.

And as for you, Association of Evangelical Pastors of Garanhuns, Jesus knew the likes of you.

He knew you only too well. He never denounced the likes of me or Renata Carvalho. But He denounced you. Over and over again. Doctors of the law, pharisees, hypocrites. Whited sepulchres. Hearts of stone.

You and your like crucified Jesus. Just as you threatened to crucify Renata if she performed on the stage.

You call yourselves followers of Christ but you are his worst enemies.

But thank you, artists and public of Garanhuns who raised the funds to enable our play to be performed in spite of censorship. Thank you for attending both performances. Thank you for staying to the very end of the second performance and giving these brave theatre artists the welcome, support and protection the festival so shamefully failed to give them.

You represent the best of your city.

As for you, FIG... do you remember the gospel story of the fig tree in Bethany that gave Jesus no fruit? He cursed it and it withered and never gave fruit again.

You will carry this disgrace round your neck like a millstone.

And in your present form you, too, will wither and die.

No good will ever come from you again.

Saturday, July 28, 2018


Evangelicals are still trying to prevent the performance of my "Gospel According to Jesus Queen of Heaven" in Garanhuns.

Natalia Mallo, the director and translator describes what happened last night:

Everything was fine in the first performance. In the interval, there was an explosion and a lot of smoke.

A feeling of foreboding. After they'd let off smoke bombs in the space, an injunction arrived (requested by the Order of Evangelical Pastors), ordering another cancellation of the performance.

We decided not to obey it. Then the security guards the theatre festival had hired turned against us, and barred the entrance of the audience.

Renata Carvalhohad had enough. She screamed at the guards and called them cowards. There was no stopping her. They asked me to calm her down. I refused. Let them listen. I stayed calm, I gave my support.

Renata forcibly opened the doors and asked the audience outside to occupy the space. Which they did, shouting "Fascists!" at the guards.
We tore up the injunction, and while the guards were filling out incident forms we began the show.

They cut the sound. I sang the soundtrack.

They cut the lights. The show went on.

They tore down the awning that protected us from the rain. The show went on.

The audience stayed to the end, and they protected us.

And now, just when we thought it was all over, a new judicial decision has come out ordering the Festival to programme the show today (Saturday).

Who knows what will happen next...."

Monday, July 23, 2018

A letter to the Christians of Garanhuns, in the state of Pernambuco, Brazil.

Dear friends,

I'm Jo Clifford, the author of the play "The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven". I'm told you're deeply offended by my play and don't want it to be performed in your city.

Something happened to me when I was in church yesterday that I wanted to tell you about.

The congregation have mostly seen the play, because I've performed it in church a few times, and are really interested in what's going on with it.

So I stood up and told them about your winter festival, and how lovely your city is, and how the play had been invited to be part of it.

And the Festival's theme was "Long Live Liberty!" but that sadly somehow that didn't apply to the play and the town council had banned it.

How many artists of your city had been outraged by the ban, and had organised a crowdfunding, which had gone so well that they'd raised enough to pay the company to perform the play on Friday, when it was scheduled.

And how they'd sold so many tickets too.

But how sad it is that the location has to be secret, because of the horrible threats that the actress, Renata Carvalho, and the company and organisers have all received.

I said how distressed I feel that my words should have caused such deep offence and how concerned I am for the safety of my colleagues and friends.

I asked them to remember the play and everyone concerned about it in their prayers on Friday.

And of course that includes you.

It may surprise you to know that I go to church regularly and that it is an important part of my life. I believe there is a spiritual dimension to our lives, and that it is important to recognise it in individual prayer and meditation, but also to find ways of expressing and exploring it in a collective and social way.

And I enjoy singing the hymns, I get moved by the prayers, I'm always interested in the sermons, and I love being part of a community of people who, like me, are distressed by the injustice and suffering in the world and want to do what we can to make it a better place for everybody.

As I was leaving, I thought of you coming to church over in the other side of the world from me and how that's probably true of you, too.

And that made me want to reach out to you, somehow.

You don't have to change your mind about my play. Everyone has the right to their own opinions.

(Though of course I'd love it if you could read it, or even hear a bit of it. I'd so love to know what you thought)

But I do want to tell you that I'm sorry if I've made you feel angry, or offended, or under attack.

That wasn't my intention at all. I wrote the play 11 or 12 years ago. I was in my mid fifties. I'd done everything I could to live as a man, and had tried my best to be a good husband and father. My daughters had grown up and left home, my wife had died of a brain tumour. I found I couldn't suppress the feeling I'd had all my life of not really being a man. I simply couldn't bear living as a man any more.

I felt I'd done my duty as a husband and a father, and that I simply had to live as a woman.

It was very difficult. I was very afraid. And people would laugh at me in the street and shout abuse at me.

Around that time  I was asked to write a play about the New Testament. And at first I didn't know what to do.

But as I read the Gospels over and over again, I was so moved by the teaching and the life of Jesus. What I loved and admired especially was the way he reached out to people who were the victims of rejection, of prejudice and oppression. Of how, when he took human form, he did not come down to earth as someone rich and powerful, but as someone poor and oppressed.

So that when I imagined him returning to earth in the present day, it seemed appropriate and in line with tradition to imagine him taking the form of someone oppressed and rejected: of a transwoman like me.

And I hoped that maybe if I retold some of his sayings that way, I'd be able to communicate something of the deep love and devotion I feel for him to people who go to church and perhaps especially to people who don't.

I'm really proud and happy that that seems to happen when people see the play performed - in my country, Scotland, in Ireland and in England, In Uruguay and Argentina, and above all in Brazil.

I do hope one day we, too, can communicate with each other.

In the meantime, please believe me when i say I sincerely wish you wll.


Jo Clifford.

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