Protests Shutter a Show That Cast White Singers as Black Slaves

MONTREAL — It was, the critics roared, an insulting and insensitive performance: White women playing black slaves picking cotton.

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RESTRICTED -- Protests Shutter a Show That Cast White Singers as Black Slaves
Dan Bilefsky
, New York Times

MONTREAL — It was, the critics roared, an insulting and insensitive performance: White women playing black slaves picking cotton.

When the show “Slav,” by acclaimed Quebec theater director Robert Lepage, premiered at the Montreal International Jazz Festival last week, it immediately spawned a backlash and criticism that white artists had recklessly appropriated black culture.

The production bills itself as a “theatrical odyssey” inspired by “traditional African-American slave and work songs.” It also features a nearly all-white cast performing the music. Its director, Lepage, is white, as is its star Betty Bonifassi. Two of the seven cast members are black, including Kattia Thony, who plays a young black woman searching for the roots of her identity.

On Wednesday, the storm proved too much, and the jazz festival and Bonifassi canceled the show after only two performances. It had sold more than 8,000 tickets and was scheduled for 16 performances. The festival said it had been “shaken” by the intensity of the response. “We would like to apologize to those who were hurt,” it said in a statement. “It was not our intention at all.”

The anger provoked by the production had been visceral and swift as artists of all stripes asked why Lepage had not bothered to hire more black actors and singers. The production also raised thorny questions about how to differentiate cultural appreciation from cultural appropriation and accusations, fairly or not, that its white creators had engaged in a modern-day form of blackface.

“This kind of black imitation is very reminiscent of blackface minstrel shows,” singer-songwriter Moses Sumney wrote in a letter to the festival, explaining his decision to withdraw from it. “The only thing missing is black paint.”

At the show’s premiere last week, protesters heckled, jeered and blocked theatergoers, mostly older and white, as they tried to enter the performance at the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde in downtown Montreal. The protesters chanted “Shame! Shame! Shame!” “Dirty racists!” “White supremacists!” Police cleared the way for the audience.

One black protester held up a sign: “Is there nothing y’all won’t steal? White culture is theft.” A black protester said a female theatergoer had slapped her in the face.

Even the title, “Slav,” attracted ire, with black activist Marilou Craft musing in Urbania, a cultural magazine, that it evoked an upmarket spa while erasing black suffering. (The French-born Bonifassi, whose mother is Serbian and father is Italian, told Craft that the title was an allusion to Serbs’ enslavement by foreign empires over six centuries.)

The show did have its defenders, among them black artists. The supporters countered that “Slav” is an homage to black culture and that mixing cultures is apt in a multicultural country like Canada. If a racial purity test requires that only black people perform black music, they argued, then, by that logic, celebrated white filmmaker Ken Burns had no right to make a documentary about jazz, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, an American with Puerto Rican roots, had no right to play “Hamilton.”

“Leave the artists in peace, let the white artists be touched and moved by black history and the songs it generated,” Frédéric Pierre, a black actor, wrote on Facebook.

Others noted that Bonifassi had long engaged with black music, including recording two albums based on slave songs collected in the 1930s by ethnomusicologists John and Alan Lomax.

Lepage, for his part, a bilingual French Canadian gay director, has long grappled with questions about minority identities. He has also helped put Quebec on the international map, creating the “Ring” cycle for the Metropolitan Opera and “Kà” for Cirque du Soleil.

In an editorial called “Blind Judgment” in La Presse, the leading Canadian French-language newspaper, columnist Laura-Julie Perreault defended the production for shining a rare spotlight on lesser known aspects of black slavery, including its existence in Quebec.

Responding to criticism in a statement on Facebook before the show’s cancellation, Lepage and Bonifassi initially said it was up to audiences to decide if they had the right to tell black peoples’ stories.

“Yes, the history of slavery, in all its various forms, belongs first and foremost to those who have been oppressed and to the descendants of those people,” they wrote. “Diversity and its artistic potential are at the heart of ‘Slav’ as much as the legacy of slavery.” The show has particularly touched a nerve here because it comes as Canada has grappled with its own its troubled colonial past and treatment of minorities, including sending indigenous children to so-called “residential schools” where they were forced to assimilate.

The belated efforts to reconcile with indigenous people have been championed by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. But in an echo of the criticism heaped on “Slav,” some indigenous artists have accused Canadian artists of appropriating their culture as well. Last year, a Toronto gallery canceled a show by white artist Amanda PL after complaints that her brightly colored works appropriated the style of an Anishinaabe artist.

Meanwhile, Trudeau himself was simultaneously praised for cultural sensitivity and lambasted for cultural condescension, this year after he and his family wore elaborate traditional Indian clothing, including gold outfits and pointy red shoes, during a trip to India.

Whatever the wider debates, here in Quebec, “Slav” has polarized the cultural establishment.

Lucas Charlie Rose, 26, a French Montreal-based transgender rapper who organized the protest, accused the production of turning slave music into “soulless rock songs.” Among his litany of complaints was that Bonifassi, a white woman, played Harriet Tubman, a Moses among black women, while “a black woman with an identity crisis” had the history of the Underground Railroad “whitesplained” to her. He admitted that he had not seen the show.

“I didn’t go to the show, as it is bad for my health, but I know a lot of people who have seen it,” he said. “My problem is that it is a story about black pain without black people involved in the creation of the show.”

In fact, hip-hop artist and historian Aly Ndiaye, better known by his stage name, Webster, did consult on the production. But he lamented that his pleas that black actors should play the slaves had been ignored. In an editorial published by the CBC, the national broadcaster, he argued that the show had whitewashed race from the production. Justifying the casting choices under the cloak of freedom of expression, he added, was too facile. “We are told we must go beyond a ‘racial’ interpretation of this work, but these songs are born of racism,” he wrote. Nicolas Ouellet, 30, a Quebecer with Senegalese origins, who hosts a cultural radio show on Radio Canada, said that “Slav” had aroused passions, in part because there were so few black voices and faces represented in Quebec popular culture.

“As a kid growing up here I thought I had no chance of working in the cultural arena as I heard so few black voices on TV, radio or at the theater,” he said. “I don’t understand why the production didn’t make more of an effort to find a more multicultural cast. It seems lazy.”

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