Theater poster raises hackles in Nashua

Responding to concerns about its offensive nature, a theater group has chosen to cover up a swastika displayed on a poster used to promote its production of a Nazi-era play. Promotional posters for the play, called “Taking Sides,” are displayed in several areas of the city. One poster is displayed in front of the Hunt Memorial Building on Main Street in Nashua, which is owned by the city.

Earlier this week, Alderman-at-Large Fred Teeboom, who had relatives killed in the Holocaust, expressed outrage over the symbol’s display on city property and in plain view of passing drivers.

Teeboom contacted the theater company and the building’s board of trustees and threatened to propose a city ordinance banning the display of a swastika on any public building if the symbol wasn’t taken down.

In an e-mail to the theater group’s art director, Teeboom said “only when you stop to read the text of the display, as I did, do you recognize it is something other than a Nazi gathering place.”

Matthew Cahoon, president of Yellow Taxi Production’s board of trustees, said Thursday that the swastika would be covered up on the poster outside the Hunt Building later that evening, but said he wasn’t sure how it was going to be covered.

“It got to the point that I believed any concern over the symbol was overshadowing the play,” he said. “That was certainly not our intention.”

Cahoon said other posters in the city and the surrounding area promoting the play would not be changed.

Cahoon said the organization had received a call from Teeboom earlier this week but said the change was ultimately made in response to a letter from Rabbi Jon Spira-Savett of the Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua.

Cahoon said Spira-Savett expressed his concern over people being offended by the display of the symbol who may not know why it is there.

“When we received the letter from the temple that we be respectful of them, there were no threats implicit,” he said.Starting next Friday, Yellow Taxi Productions is performing Robert Harwood’s “Taking Sides.” The play, which is based on a true story, takes place in 1946 and focuses on the investigation of composer Wilhelm Furtwangler after Americans have entered Germany.

After Hitler’s rise to power, Furtwangler stayed in Germany when other artists fled the country. The central theme of the play is whether Furtwangler was a Nazi or stayed for his love of music.

As part of its promotion of the play, the organization had a poster designed locally. The poster shows the silhouette of a composer, and on the left side is a red curtain with a black swastika surrounded in white.

Harwood, a British playwright, also wrote the screenplay for the film “The Pianist.”

Spira-Savett said that while it is important for the Holocaust to continue to be studied and revisited for future generations, he had concerns about how the symbol was being used.

Spira-Savett said Teeboom and Mayor Donnalee Lozeau brought the issue to his attention Tuesday and he followed up with a letter to Cahoon.

For people directly impacted by the Holocaust, it could be painful to see the swastika, he said.

“If there was a billboard that was out in public that had a picture of the twin towers burning, it would be painful (for those who lost people in the Sept. 11 attacks) to see that,” he said.

Teeboom said he was “disgusted” when he first saw the display of the symbol, particularly because it was on a city-owned building and people driving by wouldn’t know the context without stopping to read the poster.

But the issue also touches on issues of free speech and whether artists should censor themselves from using controversial symbols, such as the swastika, even though it is done to bring more exposure to an issue.

Teeboom said he didn’t see it as a free-speech issue.

“This is a symbol that transcends freedom of speech,” Teeboom said. “It’s the most hateful, most evil sign in my opinion in world history.”

Teeboom said when he made the first request to take the swastika down he was told it was going to stay up.

Teeboom said he went as far as to contact the city’s legal department to determine whether such an ordinance would be constitutional. Teeboom said it wasn’t clear at the time.

Later Thursday, Teeboom said he was happy to hear it was being covered up and that he would not be filing the proposal for the city ordinance now.

In an e-mail to Teeboom, Spira-Savett said his congregation would not have supported any ordinance that would have sought to ban the display of swastikas in the city.

Charlie Matthews, chairman of the board of trustees of the Hunt Memorial Building, said the decision to cover up the symbol was made by the production company, not the building’s trustees.

However, had the theater company chosen to keep the symbol displayed, the board of trustees likely would have met to discuss the issue, he said.

“I think we had members on both side of the issue at this point,” he said.

People walking by the sign Thursday morning said the idea of censoring artists wasn’t right.

“You can’t do that,” said Michelle Huffman, of Henniker. “It’s free speech.”

John Bauman, of Nashua, walks by the Hunt Memorial Building every day and noticed that someone had smashed the glass casing holding the poster. On Thursday, it was still smashed.

Bauman said the idea of censoring all depictions of the swastika on city buildings was “pretty foolish.” He said that any concern should be focused on the neo-Nazi organizations, not theater groups trying to educate the public.

“I mean, this is just not gratuitous,” he said.

Matthews said the display was smashed sometime Monday night and that the police were contacted.

“Taking Sides” begins its run the city Sept. 19 and goes until Sept. 27 at the Hunt Building. There is also a roundtable discussion planned for the night of Sept. 20.