Play 'Now or Later' Stirs Up Issues on Blasphemy and Freedom of Speech

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: There's a play new to this country that mirrors some of anti-Muslim tumult and the issues that surround the Benghazi story. "Now or Later" is the title, and it's presented by the Huntington Theatre Company here in Boston. The scene: Election night in America, 2008. As the results roll in, things look good for the fictional Democratic presidential candidate. The candidate's son, John, a junior at an Ivy League college, is in his hotel room, waiting for his father to claim victory. But that night, blurry photographs showing John dressed as the Prophet Mohammed at a campus party begin surfacing on the web. The campaign wants the son to apologize, but he refuses, saying it's a free speech issue. Here's a scene where John explains his thinking to his mother.

[Clip plays]
John: I'm not an envoy to Pakistan. I'm not brokering peace in the Middle East.

John's Mother: You read the news. You know what happened with the cartoons in Denmark and when they tried to give the knighthood in England.

John: But I'm not a newspaper cartoonist. I didn't write a novel. I am a college student, I went to a party. Mom, I won't be forced into becoming media figure over three blurry pictures just because someone hyperbolic political adviser needs to cover his ass.
[Clip ends]

Werman: That's a scene from the play "Now or Later". It was actually written in 2007 and premiered at London's Royal Court Theatre in 2008. Chris Shinn is the playwright and joins me here in the studio. Welcome, Chris.

Christopher Shinn: Thank you for having me.

Werman: What have you learned about the immense sensitivity surrounding this subject since you wrote the play?

Shinn: It's an incredibly difficult thing for people to think about and talk about and in dramatizing it I was acutely aware of how fraught the discussion is. There's an interesting personal story really also behind how I came to write the play. In the early days of Facebook, I got friended very randomly by a Pakistani student who had been educated in the West and was clearly from a wealthy family. And we began, even though we didn't know each other, corresponding and he was very friendly. And one day it emerged in our correspondence that I was and he remarked very directly and clearly that homosexuality was a terrible evil and a scourge and it was very clear that his Muslim religion led him to this point of view. And what I found so remarkable about how he articulated himself and how our discussion went after that was that there was no common ground, there was no way that, had we talked more or gotten to know each other better, that his opinion about homosexuality was going to change. And I found that to be so striking and stunning really and I thought, "Wow, there are some issues that people simply cannot and will not agree about no matter how much discussion and how much empathy and goodwill is available." And I felt like that was a very potent thing to try to dramatize.

Werman: And John Jr., the main character in "Now or Later", the son of the soon-to-be President, is gay and I imagine that your dialogues with this Pakistani guy you met on Facebook prompted you to fold in this extra element of cultural dissonance.

Shinn: Those discussions had a huge impact on the play because they were very personal to me, those issues of the acceptance of homosexuality, so that personal level found its way into the play very, very easily after that correspondence.

Werman: You wrote "Now or Later" five years ago, shortly after the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed created such a stir around the globe. And a few months ago, when you found out that your play would be produced in the US, I gather you were kind of concerned about its relevance, but then the Benghazi attack happened, it happened on the heels of these huge Muslim protests at an anti-Muslim video. How did all these current events feel to you, having written this play?

Shinn: Well, it's true that when we were nearing the beginning of rehearsals, I was priming myself to have to explain to potential audiences why this play was relevant. The issues of the conflict between Western ideas of freedom of expression and fundamentalist Islamic views about the Prophet Mohammed were not in the news, were not something people were talking about, and I thought, "Wow, I'm going to have to really work hard to convey to people that these issues are still alive and still very important for us to think about and address." So, obviously, it was a startling change when Benghazi happened and these issues were at the forefront again of the cultural discussion.

Werman: Did you think about doing any rewrites?

Shinn: I think what I've learned is that I wrote this play in 2007 and I haven't changed a word since then.

Werman: Wow.

Shinn: And so when we see how little things have changed from five years ago in these debates, I think we see how deep and intractable these issues are. So that's why I decided not to make any changes.

Werman: Chris Shinn is the playwright of "Now or Later" Chris, very nice to meet you. Thank you.

Shinn: Thank you.

Werman: Christopher Shinn's "Now or Later" runs through November 10th in Boston. We have a behind-the-scenes video of "Now or Later" and there are photos from the Huntington Theatre production all at theworld.org.