In August of 2004, a ten minute film titled “Submission”, by Theodoor Van Gogh, was broadcast on Dutch Public television. The film addressed violence against women in some Islamic societies by projecting text from the Koran onto the nude bodies of women as they spoke to Allah about what had happened to them.
Subsequent to the broadcast, death threats were received by Van Gogh, by the writer of the film, Ayan Hirsi Ali, and by others who worked on the film. Muslim-born Hirsi Ali went into hiding, eventually residing in the United States, and is, today, an outspoken critic of Islam, saying it is a religion of violence against women. Van Gogh refused protection after the release of the film. He was assassinated on November 2nd of 2004 while riding his bicycle by a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim who objected to the film.
Why did Van Gogh refuse protection after threats to his life were made? Was it artistic integrity that drove him to continue to speak in public in support of the film despite those threats? Natalie Menna, in her new play “Committed”, directed with precision by Brock Harris Hill, renders a fictionalized version of what the last days of Van Gogh’s life might have looked like, in an attempt to answer those questions and more.
Theo Van Gogh, played with style and panache by veteran actor Brad Fryman, was certainly a provocateur. His previous films were irreverent, even blasphemous, regarding the Catholic Church, which was, of course, the main source of censorship in Great Granduncle Vincent’s day. In Menna’s rendering of Theo’s character, we often see a man who might just have, as they say, no filter. And yet, in other moments, he seems to be putting on a brave face for dear friend Azzad (Francisco Solorzano), journalist Victoria (Ivette Dumeng), and, in particular, young son Lieuwe, played by relative newcomer Philip Schneider. Schneider’s resume isn’t very long, but he has the stage presence and skill level of a much more experienced actor, and I’m sure we can look forward to more great work from him.
Theo is also constantly under the influence of alcohol, so it’s difficult to unpack whether he’s actually brave and facing fear, whether he’s simply not taking the threats all that seriously or if he’s too intoxicated for them to register. I’m not sure if this is an element added by Menna in order to facilitate the drama, or if Van Gogh actually was a hard drinker. In any case, he describes himself as “the village idiot”, an actual snippet of conversation reported by Hirsi Ali herself, and muses that no one would go out of their way to actually expend the energy to do him harm. Whatever the reason, he fatally underestimated the zeal of his enemies.
Victoria (Dumeng), and Azzad (Solorzano) conspire, at one point, to manipulate Van Gogh into canceling his public appearances in order to keep him safe from danger. When Van Gogh discovers their plan, the ensuing conversation is the closest we come to an examination of the central question of the play – whether self-censorship and self-imposed exile make sense when one ‘s life is threatened, or if the refusal to give in is a stand that must be taken to show bullies they cannot succeed.
Interestingly, the question seems to be answered by the one character in this drama who is spoken about but never seen – Ayan Hirsi Ali. A note left on Van Gogh’s body by his murderer was a direct threat to Hirsi Ali. She did respond to the threat by retreating for a time. She did not, however, allow her voice to be silenced. Since “Submission” was broadcast, she has written four books openly critical of certain practices of Islam, and has founded the non-profit AHA foundation that combats crimes against women and girls such as forced marriage. Theo Van Gogh would no doubt be proud of her accomplishments.
Committed will run at the 14th Street YMCA, 334 West 14th Street, through Saturday, September 23rd, 2017. For tickets, please visit the website at www.14thstreety.org