Westboro Baptist Church invades Toronto

National Post, Canada/August 6, 2008

What better publicity could playwright Alistair Newton have hoped to receive for his forthcoming production, The Pastor Phelps Project: a fundamentalist cabaret, than members of the Westboro Baptist Church themselves showing up to protest outside the Cameron House on Queen Street West?

Indeed, he is courting the controversial group's presence. In an open letter to Mr. Phelps published in Fab magazine, Mr. Newton describes his show as "just like you: a shameless spectacle." He urges Mr. Phelps to picket the play. Publicity breeds publicity, after all. And publicity follows the Phelps family wherever they go.

Seven members of the a small, Kansas-based fundamentalist sect led by Fred Phelps are threatening to cross the border and picket the play on opening night tomorrow, just like they have picketed the funerals of soldiers who have died in Iraq and little girls who have died in bus crashes. Their justification? According to the group's Web site, the play is "a tacky bit of filthy sodomite propaganda, with no literary merit and zero redeeming social value, masquerading as legitimate theater. It is of the fags, by the fags and for the fags - designed only to mock the word of God and the servants of God."

Mr. Phelps himself, whose life the play explores, is not planning on coming. Rather, he is sending three of his daughters, a granddaughter and three other members of his church, according to Shirley Phelps-Roper, one of his children. They plan to picket with signs bearing slogans like "God hates you," "the wrath of God is revealed" and "God hates Canada."

"By them showing up to my piece, or threatening to show up, they've empowered my voice," Mr. Newton, the play's writer and director, said in an interview. "They've amplified a million times because all of this press follows them wherever they go. It gives me a chance to engage in a dialog about fundamentalism and about the hypocrisy of the fundamentalist right wing in North America.

"There's a part of me that is weirdly thankful to them, because they've spread my message against them to so many people that I might not have reached otherwise."

Mr. Newton is urging Torontonians not to retaliate physically - thereby giving the Phelps the reaction they want. "As soon as you sink down to that level, they've won."

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