MONTREAL — Several theaters in Quebec are forging ahead with plans to stage “Slav,” the show shut down here last week amid accusations of racial myopia, while its director has been lashing out at his critics for “muzzling” artistic freedom.
The Montreal International Jazz Festival closed the production, a “theatrical odyssey based on slave songs,” after only a handful of performances in the wake of an outcry over a majority-white cast portraying black slaves. Only two of the seven people in the show, directed by Robert Lepage and starring Betty Bonifassi, were black.
While critics of the show have welcomed the closure as a necessary cultural reckoning, several leading theater directors in Quebec rallied behind Mr. Lepage this week, citing their concerns that closing a production by such an internationally acclaimed director could have a chilling effect on artistic expression in Canada. At least four theaters are proceeding with productions of “Slav,” even if that means braving protests.
Seldom has a theatrical production in Canada proved so polarizing. The show, which spawned a national debate about cultural appropriation, prompted theater critics and black activists to denounce it for masking black suffering. Protesters heckled audience members in Montreal as “white supremacists” and blocked them from entering the theater, forcing police intervention (the jazz festival said over the weekend that it had shut the show because of security concerns, not censorship).
But David Laferrière, director of the Gilles-Vigneault Theater in St.-Jérôme, north of Montreal, which will show “Slav” in early 2019, said that, while he was sympathetic to the black community’s concerns about casting, canceling the show would mean recklessly silencing dialogue and debate. “I just want to show art,” he said. “The work is fallible but it needs to be seen.”
He added that he wasn’t worried about protests, “as long as no one slaps anyone,” as happened in Montreal, where a white audience member slapped a black protester in the face.
Marie-Pierre Simoneau, director of La Maison des arts Desjardins Drummondville, a theater in central Quebec that will also show “Slav” next year, said she had been shocked by all the fuss. The role of a theater, she argued, was not to adjudicate political issues or get the approbation of minority groups, but, rather, to create a space between art and the public.
“It is a matter of artistic freedom for a theater to show what it wants to show,” she said. Invoking Ms. Bonifassi’s own defense that “Slav” was about slavery in all its incarnations, not just African-American slavery, she added: “I saw the play myself and saw the casting in the context that slavery doesn’t have only one color, it wasn’t just in the cotton fields.”
The backlash against the backlash that shuttered the show reflects a particular Quebecois distaste for orthodoxy or authoritarianism of any kind, including in culture — a legacy of the 1960s, when Quebec society revolted against the authoritarianism of the Catholic Church during a period known as the “Quiet Revolution.”
Indeed, commentators across the political spectrum have defended Mr. Lepage and Ms. Bonifassi after days of their being eviscerated in the media for tone-deafness. Writing in Le Journal de Montréal, an influential tabloid, the columnist Guy Fournier this week blamed “culture appropriation snipers” for shutting down the show, labeling the protesters as extremists who “shoot at anything that moves — if it is white.”
The expressions of support for Mr. Lepage and Ms. Bonifassi came after the two broke their silence about the closing of their show.
Writing on the Facebook page of Ex Machina, his theater production company, Mr. Lepage complained that “Slav” had been “officially muzzled.” “Everything that led to this cancellation is a direct blow to artistic freedom,” he wrote, adding that, “since the dawn of time, theater has been based on a very simple principle, that of playing someone else.”
Mr. Lepage said that over his long career, he had “devoted entire shows denouncing injustices done throughout history to specific cultural groups, without actors from said groups” and “without anyone accusing me of cultural appropriation, let alone of racism.”
Equally unrepentant, Mr. Bonifassi railed against the violent “intimidation” that had greeted the production. In an open letter to La Presse, a leading French language newspaper, she warned that “a theater must be free to shine — and to make mistakes.” She suggested that the pursuit of culture ought to be colorblind: “Are we going to forbid a young Haitian woman from studying Bach, as Nina Simone was able to do?”
But cultural critics, including black artists, accused Slav’s creators of self-serving narcissism and of failing to address the fundamental question of why they had failed to cast black actors as black slaves in the first place.
The hip-hop artist and historian Aly Ndiaye, known by his stage name, Webster, who consulted on the Montreal production, said he was very disappointed that Mr. Lepage had refused to address the critical question of why so few black faces were represented in the theater, in the arts and on television in Quebec. “He missed his opportunity to change history,” he said, calling Mr. Lepage’s Facebook post “insipid” and “egocentric.”
Marilou Craft, a black activist, whose searing critique of “Slav” in Urbania, a cultural magazine, helped spur the protests, accused Mr. Lepage and Ms. Bonifassi of hiding behind the cloak of “freedom of expression” to distract from criticism.
Mr. Lepage’s company has not said whether it plans to make any casting changes for “Slav.” And Mr. Lepage, no stranger to controversy in an august career that has seen him range across theater, ballet, opera and circus arts, could soon be in for another cultural firefight.
His coming show, “Kanata,” created in conjunction with France’s Théâtre du Soleil, examines unsavory aspects of Canadian history, including the assimilation and subjugation of Indigenous children at residential schools.
Several critics of the show, which was performed at the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan in 2017, and will be shown in Paris in December and in Quebec in 2020, are already complaining that it has a glaring omission: Canadian Indigenous actors.
Ex Machina said in a statement that the production consisted of 34 people from multiple backgrounds, and that the show planned to use video testimonials from Canadian Indigenous people, including victims of residential schools, and had also consulted widely with Indigenous leaders.
But Maïtée Labrecque-Saganash, an Indigenous activist in northern Quebec, asked why the show was not hiring indigenous Canadian actors or collaborating with an Indigenous theater company “if the goal is to pay tribute and do justice to Indigenous peoples.”
Jasmin Lavoie contributed reporting from Montreal