A Show About Indigenous Canadians Has a Glaring Omission: Indigenous Canadian Actors

Posted July 16, 2018 10:58 p.m. EDT

MONTREAL —After the closure of his polarizing show featuring white actors as black slaves, renowned Quebec theater director Robert Lepage is facing a new backlash over the failure to cast Canadian indigenous people in a coming production chronicling their historic suffering.

In recent weeks, the Canadian theater world has been embroiled in a vociferous debate over cultural appropriation after “Slav,” an odyssey about black slave music by Lepage and starring singer Betty Bonifassi, was shuttered at the Montreal International Jazz Festival. The closure this month followed an outcry that having a majority white cast portraying black slaves was insensitive and minimized black suffering.

Now, about 30 people, led by indigenous artists, writers and activists, have lashed out at his new production, “Kanata,” which recounts aspects of indigenous Canadians’ subjugation by white people. It features 34 actors, none of whom are indigenous Canadians. In an open letter published this weekend in Le Devoir, a leading French-language newspaper, the signatories lamented that the production was abetting the lack of indigenous faces and voices in the cultural arena.

“Our invisibility in the public space, on the stage, doesn’t help us,” they wrote, noting that they were not interested in censorship. Alluding to “Slav,” they lamented that Lepage appeared to be repeating recent history and that they were fed up “hearing other people tell our stories.”

The show, created in conjunction with France’s Théâtre du Soleil, will be shown in Paris in December and in Quebec in 2020. It has raised alarm among some indigenous artists, scholars and intellectuals as it deals with recent history, including the forced enrollment of indigenous children in abusive boarding schools known as “residential schools” and the murder and disappearance of as many as 4,000 indigenous women in Canada since the 1980s. These experiences remain raw and visceral for victims and their families.

The timing of “Kanata” also has particular resonance here as Canada has been seeking to reconcile with its dark colonial past. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established by the government equated residential schools with “cultural genocide.”

“Our wounds are still fresh and this production is just like a Western where you have Americans playing Indians,” said Maïtée Labrecque-Saganash, 23, an indigenous activist in northern Quebec, who signed the letter. “The lack of cultural inclusion undermines reconciliation and feels like we are being colonized all over again. Sorry, Robert Lepage, but we don’t need you to speak on our behalf.”

The angry response came after Ariane Mnouchkine, director of the Théâtre du Soleil, appeared to defend the casting by saying that a Danish actor need not play Hamlet, the prince of Denmark. “The theater needs distance and transformation,” she told Le Devoir.

In an email Monday, Lepage’s production company Ex Machina said Lepage was not available for comment “because he is in an intensive creation period this week.” But in a statement over the weekend, it said that Mnouchkine and Lepage invited the letter’s signatories to Montreal on Thursday to meet with them “for a dialogue.”

Earlier, Ex Machina said in a statement that the 34 actors in “Kanata” were a diverse group, that the show planned to use video testimonials from indigenous people who had been forced into residential schools and that it had also consulted widely with indigenous leaders.

Following the closure of “Slav,” Lepage railed against his critics, observing in a Facebook post that it was an affront to artistic freedom and stressing that, “since the dawn of time, theater has been based on a very simple principle, that of playing someone else.” Despite the cancellation in Montreal, several theater directors in Quebec are proceeding with plans to host “Slav” in solidarity with Lepage.

In the case of “Kanata,” leading indigenous cultural figures countered that by omitting Canadian indigenous people from the production, Mnouchkine and Lepage risked mishandling indigenous people’s suffering, fetishizing their history and depriving them of the imperative and catharsis of representing their own narrative to the world.

Kim O’Bomsawin, an indigenous film director whose documentary “Quiet Killing” deals with the assassination and disappearance of indigenous women, said the omission was particularly worrying given the dearth of indigenous roles in the theater and the availability of talented indigenous actors in theater troupes in Canada.

Indeed, other productions about the mistreatment of indigenous people have gone to great lengths to incorporate them. A 2017 production by the Canadian Opera Company of Harry Somers’ “Louis Riel,” in which the director Peter Hinton overcame the relative scarcity of indigenous opera singers by using indigenous performers in contemporary outfits.

O’Bomsawin said that “we need big artists like Lepage to tackle indigenous issues.” But she argued that indigenous artists needed to be incorporated in all aspects of the production, “including on stage under the spotlight.”