Quebec stage director Robert Lepage broke his silence Friday on the abrupt cancellation of his controversial SLAV show, calling it a direct attack on artistic freedom.
The Montreal International Jazz Festival cancelled the show Wednesday amid heavy criticism it amounted to cultural appropriation because it featured a white woman and largely white cast singing songs composed by black slaves.
In a statement released through the Ex-Machina production company, Lepage said he would leave it to others to debate the issue of cultural appropriation, which he called “an extremely complicated problem” he could not pretend to be able to solve.
But the award-winning playwright, who has 40 years under his belt in theatre, said he is well-placed to speak about it from an artistic standpoint.
“To me, what is most appalling is the intolerant discourse heard both on the street and in some media,” Lepage said.
Lepage said theatre is based on the principle of someone playing someone else or 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,” he said. “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.”
SLAV, one of the hottest tickets at this year’s jazz festival, was the subject of protests from its debut and was called out for appropriation of black culture and history.
It was described as “a theatrical odyssey based on slave songs” and described by organizers as a journey “through traditional Afro-American songs, from cotton fields to construction sites, railroads, from slave songs to prison songs.”
Betty Bonifassi, a Montreal-based singer known for her Oscar-nominated work on the soundtrack of Les Triplettes de Belleville was the main performer in the show.
After widespread criticism and the cancellation of a festival appearance by U.S. musician Moses Sumney because of SLAV, the jazz festival cancelled the remaining presentations and apologized to anyone offended by it.
Lepage said everyone involved in the project understood they were taking on a sensitive subject and that it fell on them to create a show “with diligence, respect, honesty and integrity.” And they elected to remain silent in an “overcharged atmosphere” created by the show.
“As long as the show was being performed, it was speaking for itself and we didn’t have anything to add to the debate, which also allowed us to listen to the arguments of those who were opposed to our show being presented,” he said.
‘It’s a living art form’
Lepage said the “muzzling” of the show has led them to speak out.
The playwright said theatre pieces tend to evolve, an opportunity that wasn’t afforded to SLAV given it was cancelled after just three shows.
“It’s obvious that any new show comes with its share of blunders, misfires and bad choices,” Lepage said.
“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.”
Lepage noted that over his career, he has put on shows denouncing injustices through history to specific cultural groups without including actors from those 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,” he said.
Lepage said the show would still be running if it were up to him.
“I will always demand the right for theatre to talk about anything and anyone,” Lepage said. “Without exception. None.”
Quebec Culture Minister Marie Montpetit tweeted about the cancellation, saying the reaction on both sides of the controversy was unfortunate as she called for dialogue to prevent a similar incident from taking place in the future.
“Freedom of expression and creation are fundamental elements of our society and must always be protected,” Montpetit wrote. “However, we can not control or judge what people feel.”
“It is unfortunate that people felt offended by the piece. It is also unfortunate that this controversy ends with the cancellation of an artistic production.”
Parti Québécois Leader Jean-Francois Lisée also weighed in, defending Lepage.
“To act for more diversity in culture, yes, but muzzling and censoring art, no,” Lisée tweeted. “I fully support Robert Lepage’s position.”
And Maka Kotto, a PQ member of the legislature who is black, described the jazz festival’s decision as “intellectual terrorism.”
“This is a totalitarian mechanism that needs to be clearly denounced in order to preserve our freedom of artistic creation,” he said on Twitter.