Montreal Gazette, July 6, 2018
Award winning director Robert Lepage has broken his silence over a decision by the Montreal International Jazz Festival to shut down his controversial production “SLĀV” after just three performances, saying the move was a “direct blow to artistic freedom.”
The production, which features songs composed by slave cultures throughout history including black slaves captive in America, was criticized for having a mostly white cast perform the material and for having a white director. Protesters also accused the show of engaging in the appropriation of black culture.
In a communique posted on his theatre company’s Facebook page, Lepage said he, show creator Betty Bonifassi, her singers, and Ex Machina, his theatre company, “were aware from the beginning of the project that we were taking on a sensitive subject and that it was our responsibility to work to create this show with diligence, respect, honesty and integrity…my team and I felt that, in the overcharged atmosphere created by our show, it would be wiser to remain silent since any statement we might make would throw oil on the fire.”
However, wrote Lepage “now that SLĀV has been officially muzzled, we have to use another way to communicate.”
Lepage wrote that he didn’t want to enter into the debate over cultural appropriation “for it is an extremely complicated problem and I don’t pretend to know how to solve it.” However he added that he found the debate over the show on the street and in some media to be “appalling” and the decision to shut down the show “a direct blow to artistic freedom.”
Lepage argues that “theatre has been based on a very simple principle, that of playing someone else. Pretending to be someone else. Stepping into the shoes of another person to try to understand them, and in the process, perhaps understand ourselves, better. This ancient ritual requires that we borrow, for the duration of a performance, someone else’s look, voice, accent and at times even gender.
“But when we are no longer allowed to step into someone else’s shoes, when it is forbidden to identify with someone else, theatre is denied its very nature, it is prevented from performing its primary function and is thus rendered meaningless.
“Over the course of my career, I have devoted entire shows denouncing injustices done throughout history to specific cultural groups, without actors from said groups. These shows have been performed all over the world, in front of very diverse audiences, without anyone accusing me of cultural appropriation, let alone of racism. Quite the contrary. These projects have always been very well received and have contributed to make Ex Machina one of the most respected theatre companies in the world.”
Lepage acknowledged that “any new show comes with its share of blunders, misfires and bad choices. But unlike a number of other art forms theatre is not fixed. It’s a living art form, that allows a play to grow and evolve constantly, to be perpetually rewritten according to audience reactions, and to be fine tuned show after show.
“This evolution was never to happen for SLĀV since the run was cancelled after only three performances. If it were up to me, the show would still be running, for I will always demand the right for theatre to talk about anything and anyone. Without exception. None.”
On Wednesday, the jazz fest announced the cancellation of all further performances of “SLAV” because of the protests sparked by the show, which was directed by Robert Lepage and featuring Betty Bonifassi, both of whom are white.
The decision followed an announcement by African American musician Moses Sumney that he was withdrawing from the festival because of the show’s presence in its programming.
Sumney criticized the show for featuring a white performer and having a white director while containing songs composed by black slaves.
The 28-year-old Sumney took to Twitter to say he could not in good conscience perform in the festival while it continued to defend the controversial production.
For the past week, “SLAV” has been the focal point of a controversy and protests, with critics complaining the show represents a racist appropriation of black culture.