Another one of Quebec director Robert Lepage's productions is mired in controversy, following an uproar over SLĀV, his show about black spiritual slave songs sung by a mostly white cast and headlining Betty Bonifassi, a white singer, that was cancelled by the Montreal International Jazz Festival after a few performances.
Lepage’s upcoming show Kanata, about Indigenous people, once again without any real representation or artistic input from the very communities it is about, prompted 20 Indigenous artists and activists to write a letter that was published in Le Devoir.
Faced with back-to-back accusations of cultural appropriation and damning international headlines, Lepage proposed to meet with those who signed the letter. Ariane Mnouchkine of Théâtre du Soleil, where Kanata is scheduled for a premiere in Paris, planned to fly in for the meeting.
During his announcement, Lepage indicated he was also willing to meet with the SLĀV Resistance Collective, a group formed by members of Montreal’s black community in response to the show featuring white people in a uniquely black story.
One hopes that Lepage is inching closer to a reluctant understanding of how damaging it is to tell stories that don’t belong to him without the input and participation of these communities. In the meantime, some French-language pundits continue to treat the collective as a fringe group of troublesome, disorganized, and unreasonable fanatics intent on censorship.
Un des pouvoirs les plus importants de la société médiatique : décréter qu'un sujet est controversé, qu'il crée la polémique, et dès lors, le soumettre à un procès quotidien en donnant systématiquement la parole à ceux qu'il agace, même s'ils sont groupusculaires.— Mathieu Bock-Côté (@mbockcote) July 14, 2018
But what kind of "disorganized" group puts together a 59-page bilingual media kit outlining in extensive detail their demands and their reasons for them? Have the critics so eager to discredit them taken the time to sift through this lengthy document, which carefully and respectfully explains why SLĀV was both inaccurate and insulting? Aside from initial concerns about cultural appropriation, the press release is a call to action and an in-depth explanation of why a dialogue with everyone is the best way to work towards the promotion of real cultural diversity and address the systemic conditions that led to a show like SLĀV even being possible.
Demands, double standards, and public reactions
"We have people claiming that we’re attacking French Quebecers and Quebec institutions, when all we’re trying to do is state the need for more funding for black and Indigenous communities and overall diversity."
Among the many demands requested by the collective, they want to see the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde undergo a public and external evaluation of their programming. This is the Montreal theatre where the show was presented as part of the jazz festival.
“We demand that TNM commit to hiring black writers, directors, and actors and present shows produced by them,” says the release. “The programming at TNM is overwhelmingly white. For their 2018-19 season, 100 per cent of directors are white, 95 per cent of starring actors are white, and 88 per cent of all actors are white. This is unacceptable for a theatre company that is located in a city as diverse as Montréal and that claims to offer theatre ‘rooted in the realities of today.’ It is unacceptable, moreover, for a company that receives public funding from at least five major government bodies, whose mission is to promote the culture of Québec or Canada.”
The collective also calls on Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard and Marie Montpetit, Québec Minister of Culture and Communications, to rectify the present racial inequalities in public funding for the arts in Quebec and the assessment processes that led to a production like SLĀV.
“We demand that a financed measure be added to the recently released Quebec cultural action plan and policy and that black professionals be added to the advisory and scientific boards in charge of the cultural policy,” says the press release. They called on the two public funders of SLĀV, the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec and the Canada Council for the Arts to dedicate funding and capacity-building resources toward artists who are black, Indigenous and people of colour.
In response to their protests and their demands, some committee members have received death threats and a barrage of anti-immigrant, racist, xenophobic, and often transphobic insults. Transgender hip hop artist Lucas Charlie Rose was instrumental in launching the petition against SLĀV and bore the brunt of much social media hate. Despite the backlash, their goal remains clear: instigate a conversation.
“Some people are questioning our tone,” SLC committee member, artist, and social worker Ricardo Lamour tells me.
“Whenever you speak truth to power, people are always ‘you can’t speak to me that way.’ We have people claiming that we’re attacking French Quebecers and Quebec institutions, when all we’re trying to do is state the need for more funding for black and Indigenous communities and overall diversity,” he continues. “There is more funding going towards religious buildings in a secular province, than towards culture and our ‘vivre ensemble,’ where representation matters,” Lamour adds. “Look at what’s being produced here in Quebec… it’s so white, the narratives are so foreign to so many of the kids I work with that their gaze turns to the U.S. because they don’t see themselves reflected in the work here; they don’t recognize themselves.”
Lamour wonders why it took international exposure and backlash about SLĀV before the Montreal Jazz Festival and the TNM withdrew the piece.
“Why weren’t the angry black voices at home enough for them to listen to us, even though we’re the ones contributing on a fiscal level towards what’s being produced here?” he asks. “The Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec and the Canada Council for the Arts? They belong to us, as well. The silence of Philippe Couillard, the silence of Marie Montpetit, the almost-apology of (TNM director) Lorraine Pintal is something that we should no longer have to deal with as a community, as minorities, and we should all do better. It’s not just the festival that needs to do better, but these institutions that make it possible for SLĀV to be.”
Lamour bemoans the double standard that few in the media have chosen to point out or can even see, because of the lack of diversity there as well.
“There’s an extra burden being placed on us right now to ensure all our documents are available in both languages, to appeal to everybody, to appease everybody, to watch our tone. That’s apparently not Lepage’s burden. He’s using our cultural institutions and the generous funding they receive almost like a credit card and everything is handed to him because he’s a creative genius, but who’s listening to us? There should be a certain level of humility when a marginalized group is pointing out issues with a piece that involves our history. He shouldn’t be treated like he’s God. The way people defended him… I wish they would have defended our legitimate demands the same way.”
Lamour points to the Federal government as an example of a more receptive body. Working in conjunction with the newly formed Federation of Black Canadians, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government earmarked $214 million in the 2018 budget to remove racial barriers, promote gender equality and combat homophobia and transphobia, all issues that affect the quality of life for black Canadians.
“At the very least, the prime minister acknowledged back in February that racism and unconscious bias against black people exist in this country,” Lamour states. “But what about our provincial government? I feel like we have a very colonial approach here when it comes to listening to and championing the voices of racialized people in Quebec. Whenever we see ourselves it’s always because it’s some form of tokenism and the person in that position can’t really say what’s on their mind, a big level of their humanity needs to be surpressed, put on mute. Now, as a collective with a petition we’re being accused of censoring when we as people, along with Indigenous communities, don’t even have access to most forums and most mainstream media.
“We’re being treated as if we’re a criminal organization or a terrorist group. I’m not speaking from a place of power, I’m speaking truth to power. And if people can’t connect the dots to understand that, it means that their level of denial is being enforced, protected and valued by a system that reproduces that.”
How can they be Quebec bashers when they are Quebec too?
Lamour expressed deep disappointment over the way some media have chosen to portray them.
“Why is Journal de Montréal columnist Guy Fournier painting me as an extremist?” asks Lamour. “Does he remember when I met him in 2008 when I pitched a project to him and how interesting he thought it was? Is he aware that I sit on the same cultural board (Culture Montreal), as former MNA Liza Frulla, who is the author of the first (and only) integrative cultural policy in Quebec? Do people know that I received the Pauline Julien Award for my political writing and received a medal from the Lieutenant-Governor of Quebec for my social involvement and citizen intervention projects? (An irony that must be particularly palpable in the current climate). Have they done any research on us, instead of attacking or infantilising normal, engaged Quebec citizens who know how to read between the lines of these imperfect policies and placing them under scrutiny?"
Singer, songwriter, and community worker, Elena Stoodley also bemoans the lack of openness and unwillingness to understand what is at the heart of their opposition to SLĀV. “This polarization is not something we wanted,” she says. According to her, the issues with SLĀV go way beyond the lack of representation. They also stem from a complete lack of understanding of slavery.
“The play re-writes the story of slavery,” she says. “It conflates indebted servitude that many Irish lived through with the enslavement of blacks. This is 100 per cent inaccurate, yet this is precisely how the production of SLĀV starts. If they had consulted more people and actually listened to them, they could have avoided these grave errors. The way the show is written will affect its impact and it should go back to the drawing board.”
She's also disappointed by how often they have been depicted as anti-Quebec or anti-French.
“We’re born and raised in Quebec, we’re bilingual, we are the children of immigrants. But we have been consistently misrepresented or badly represented in Quebec media, and since the cultural narrative dictates how we’re treated, it matters. We need to raise our voices because if we’re badly represented we’re dehumanized.”
Stoodley doesn't understand the accusations of censorship.
“I think talking about censorship is distraction. I think we were clear that we wanted dialogue, we voiced our concerns to engage in a dialogue, I think that Robert Lepage has many platforms available to him to say what he wants so I don’t think he’s been censored. It’s unfortunate that the play has been canceled, but his voice is still being heard and we still want to talk to him. Events unfolded in a way that we had no control over; including the show's cancellation.”
Asked about certain Quebec pundits’ assertion that cultural appropriation does not exist as a concept in the French-speaking world, Stoodley quickly defines the term.
“Cultural appropriation is about power dynamics between a dominated culture and a dominant culture. In this case it’s not related to language at all, it’s referring to the dominant culture of Quebec, which so happens to be francophone,” she explains.
What this means is that you can still be a cultural and linguistic minority fighting for your survival within Canada and North America and still be the dominant culture when interacting with other minorities within Quebec.
“Both are possible,” says Stoodley. “One doesn’t erase the other.”
Ownership and control of representation are vital
“Representation is key, because we are everywhere in this city – the second largest black population outside of Ontario — and yet, we are excluded, profoundly, in every single employment sector one can name,” says Rachel Zellars, a postdoctoral fellow in the history department at the University of Vermont and a McGill alumna. “The arts sector is perhaps most complicit in this regard: this city is rich with brilliant black artists, actors, directors, and musicians who are systemically excluded from provincial and national arts-based funding opportunities, as well as theatre and television in every role and position one can name.”
Zellars believes that an understanding of history is vital in understanding why control over marginalized communities' own representation matters and why issues of cultural appropriation sting so much.
“Quebec was a society with slavery until the early 19th century," she explains. "And the institution of slavery relied on two very fundamental mechanisms to exist - a) control of the black body and b) importantly, control over its representation — quite literally, how black life and black people were portrayed in the world. [...] For black people in North America, art and expression have been tremendous tools of survival and resistance. So, of course, any activism led by and meaningful to black people, will be in part, a demand over the ownership and control of our bodily and cultural representation."
Zellars also points out that tone policing and denial of wrongdoing are classic derailment techniques.
“When a person or organization has been called out for bias or racism, the most common response is to a) insist upon one’s intent, which is always a way to immediately de-center the person who has been genuinely harmed and b) center one's own victimization or simply, deny wrongdoing. This is always an indecent and violent response in a world that values black life so little."
Asked to comment on arguments about absolute artistic freedom; requiring art be exempt from politics and politically correct expectations, Zellars is categorical.
"Art is never above critique — particularly when it relies on the bodies and stories and histories of those that are absented from the art itself. As a local organizer pointed out last weekend on Facebook, after 9/11 happened, Lepage was presenting “Zulu Time” in NYC, a show that involved a terrorist attack, and he cancelled all remaining shows out of respect for grieving New Yorkers. This response shows a clear understanding of the relationship between art or the artist, and the significance of social context. Hypocritical? It would be blinding to ignore this selective application in the context of the concerns and demands raised now by black organizers, artists, and other community members here in Montreal.”
Lepage’s response to criticism an honest mea culpa or just damage control?
Lepage indicated he was willing to meet the group of Indigenous actors, writers, activists and artists from across Quebec who have raised concerns about his upcoming play, Kanata. He has also indicated a similar desire to meet with members of the SLĀV Resistance Collective.
But it remains to be seen if any real lessons have been learned with this controversy or if Lepage is simply going through the motions and engaging in damage control.
I gave Robert Lapage tons of advice, he obviously took none of it. I don’t appreciate being name-dropped. I can’t endorse a project I haven’t seen. Lapage seems set in his ways, I’ve lost interest in his work. https://t.co/c1vTHO2R0v— Cowboy Smithx (@CowboySmithx) July 17, 2018
In the meantime, the collective remains in solidarity with Indigenous artists voicing their opposition and await a formal invitation to sit down with Lepage. Dialogue, they insist, is all they ever wanted.
The process, however, is slow and meeting with them doesn't appear to be a priority for the Quebec director. A recent one-line email message they received stated that a meeting would be organized by the end of 2018.
"We don't consider this an openness to dialogue," says Lamour.
Considering SLAV is slated to run in Drummondville, Saint-Jerome and other parts of rural Quebec in a few months, one has to wonder why the conversation isn't happening now.
“I’m glad that Robert Lepage wants to talk to us, but I feel like there’s a lot of consciousness and awareness that has to happen before the play continues,” Stoodley concludes.
While those following the controversy await to see what will emerge from Lepage's meeting with opponents of Kanata, the singer who was front and centre of SLAV, Betty Bonifassi, has been invited on popular French-language talk show Y’a du monde à messe on Friday.
What will she be talking about? Cultural appropriation.
Toula Drimonis writes from Montreal. Use the promo code TOULA today and save 20% on an annual subscription to National Observer.