Jo Clifford: Censorship & Violent Threats in Brazil

PEN centres based in the UK have urged the Foreign Secretary to call on the Brazilian government to ensure The Gospel According to Jesus Queen of Heaven by Jo Clifford can be performed in Brazil free from threats of violence and censorship.

Jo Clifford is a leading playwright and Scottish PEN member based in Scotland. Her adaptation of Great Expectations made her the first openly trans playwright to have a play running in London’s West End. Her work has bravely challenged established assumptions and reimagined known stories to celebrate often ignored narratives and help dream a new world into being. The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven is a piece written in 2009 that tells the story of a transgender Jesus Christ. On the play’s launch, Jo said: “Christianity is often used as a weapon against LGBT people to deny us our rights. I wanted to see how this could be justified by the source texts, and in Jesus, Queen of Heaven make the simple point that Jesus never attacked us and assert our human rights to justice and respect.”

Over the past two years, the play has been performed over 140 times in cities across Brazil, where it has faced unprecedented opposition from both the Evangelical and Catholic Church who undertook legal proceedings against the play in Jundiaí, Porto Alegre, Belo Horizonte, Salvador and Garanhuns, including court orders for the play to be cancelled, which were successful in Jundiaí. In other locations including Londrina, Taubaté, Rio de Janeiro, Araçatuba and Brasilia, a concerted campaign against the play involved public calls for boycotts, threats made against companies involved in the production and the spreading of malicious reports via social media. Further to this, the play’s director has received death threats for their involvement in this play and a number of films have been shared online that included death threats aimed at the cast. This is taking place against the backdrop of widespread killings of transgender people in Brazil, with more than 170 killed last year and over 95 killings in 2018 so far. On the threats faced by the play, Jo Clifford said:

The Gospel According to Jesus Queen of Heaven is a devotional play whose intention is to remind audiences that the Jesus of the Gospels has a message of love and inclusion for everybody. It is both ironic and sad that so often prejudice results in the play being attacked as being disrespectful to Christianity, when it is nothing of the kind. It concerns me greatly to find it the object of such sustained attack and to find the theatre company performing it the objects of vicious and repeated threats. I hope a way can be found to respect the constitution of Brazil – which states Brazil is a secular country and guarantees freedom of expression – and allow the play to be performed without threats or interference.”

Scottish PEN, PEN International, English PEN and Wales PEN Cymru, alongside the chairs of PEN International’s Writers In Prison and Women Writers Committees have co-signed a letter to Jeremy Hunt asking him to call on the Brazilian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Aloysio Nunes Ferreira Filho to ensure that the play, The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven written by leading Scottish playwright, Jo Clifford can continue to be performed in Brazil free from threats of censorship and violence.

The letter calls on Jeremy Hunt, as the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, to undertake formal proceedings to engage with the Brazilian government to ensure the performances of The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven can continue free from the threats of censorship and violence. This includes ensuring the remaining performances are able to run as scheduled and everyone involved in the production, including cast and crew are safe from any and all threats of violence. Jennifer Clement, the PEN International president signed the letter and reiterated PEN International’s support for Jo Clifford:

“PEN International stands with Jo Clifford. Our PEN Charter states clearly that we do our utmost to dispel all hatreds and to champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace and equality in one world.”

Here is the full letter sent to Jeremy Hunt:

Dear Secretary of State,

Please call on the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to ensure The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven can continue to be staged across Brazil free from threats of violence and censorship

We are writing on behalf of Scottish PEN, the Scottish Centre of PEN International and two of its subcommittees, the Writers At Risk Committee that campaigns on behalf of imprisoned or at-risk writers and the Women Writers Committee, which protects and celebrates the work and lives of women writers across the globe. This call is also supported by PEN International, English PEN and Wales PEN Cymru and the international secretariats of the Writers In Prison and Women Writers Committees. We are contacting you in regards to the threats brought against playwright Jo Clifford and those involved the performance of her play, The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven in Brazil.

Jo Clifford is a leading playwright and Scottish PEN member based in Scotland. Her adaptation of Great Expectations made her the first openly trans playwright to have a play running in London’s West End. Her work has bravely challenged established assumptions and reimagined known stories to celebrate often ignored narratives and “help dream a new world into being”. The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven is a piece written in 2009 that tells the story of a transgender Jesus Christ. Of this piece, Jo said: “Christianity is often used as a weapon against LGBT people to deny us our rights. I wanted to see how this could be justified by the source texts, and in Jesus, Queen of Heaven make the simple point that Jesus never attacked us and assert our human rights to justice and respect.”

The challenging nature of this piece has attracted criticism and condemnation. In 2009, the first performance at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow was met with 500 protestors and the piece was condemned by the Archbishop of Glasgow, who declared that it was “hard to imagine a greater affront to the Christian faith”. During its run in Belfast, as part of the 2015 Outburst Queer Arts Festival, calls were made for the performance to be cancelled. However in these cases and in spite of the opposition the play was able to be performed free from state censorship or threats of violence.

Over the past two years, the play has been performed over 140 times in cities across Brazil, where it has faced unprecedented opposition from both the Evangelical and Catholic Church who undertook legal proceedings against the play in Jundiaí, Porto Alegre, Belo Horizonte, Salvador and Garanhuns, including court orders for the play to be cancelled, which were successful in Jundiaí. In other locations including Londrina, Taubaté, Rio de Janeiro, Araçatuba and Brasilia, a concerted campaign against the play involved public calls for boycotts, threats made against companies involved in the production and the spreading of malicious reports via social media. Further to this, the play’s director has received death threats for their involvement in this play and a number of films have been shared online that included death threats aimed at the cast.

Under Article Five of the Brazilian Constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Brazil has ratified, the country has a legal requirement to protect free expression; threats made against this play and the people behind it must cease immediately in accordance with these principles. According to Rede Nacional de Pessoas Trans do Brasil, an organisation that tracks violence against transgender people, more than 170 transgender people were killed in Brazil last year. So far in 2018, over 95 transgender people have been killed. Beyond broader issues related to free expression, the issues the play grapples with are in need of being discussed in an open, inclusive and meaningful manner across Brazil to ensure that violence against transgender people is countered. By facilitating discussion, building understanding and undermining prejudice, Jo Clifford’s piece is a powerful piece of art that can help achieve this necessary and important goal.

The ongoing attempts to censor performances of The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven and the threats made against people involved in the production are incompatible with Brazil’s commitments to human rights and free expression. To this end, we are asking, on behalf of Jo Clifford, that you make representation to your Brazilian counterpart, the Brazilian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Aloysio Nunes Ferreira Filho, to ensure that the play can continue to run and to guarantee the safety of everyone involved. If the UK is to display international leadership on human rights, we need to speak out for and defend the rights of those brave enough to express themselves, while at the same time ensuring UK citizens who share their work abroad are able to work free from threats of censorship or violence.

We will be happy to work with you and your team if you require any more information to support you in this request. We await your response and would like to thank you in advance for taking the steps to protect the right to free expression of Jo Clifford and everyone involved in the production of The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven.

Yours sincerely,

Jennifer Clement, the president of PEN International;

Carl MacDougall, the president of Scottish PEN;

Philippe Sands, the president of English PEN;

Sally Baker, the director of Wales PEN Cymru;

Antonia Byatt, the director of English PEN;

Salil Tripathi, the international chair of the Writers In Prison Committee;

Jane Archer, the chair of Scottish PEN’s Writers At Risk Committee;

Elizabeth Nordgren, the international chair of the Women Writers Committee;

Elizabeth Reeder, the chair of the Scottish PEN’s Women Writers Committee.

 

To see the final version of the letter sent to Jeremy Hunt please click here

Stay tuned as we will update you when we receive a response from the Foreign Secretary

Tags: Brazil Censorship jo clifford lgbt Religion trans violence