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When Ex Machina, Robert Lepage’s multidisciplinary production company, approached me in the summer of 2017 to discuss the SLĀV project, its “theatrical odyssey based on slave songs,” I was excited by the idea of a production focused on slavery.

I imagined, perhaps naively, that it would launch a discussion and contribute to a better understanding of history.

I met Lepage and his team to share my knowledge of slavery, notably, the form slavery took place here in Quebec.

A few months later, they sent me a video of an early version of the show, so that I could review certain historical facts.

Right at that first meeting, as well as in correspondence after I saw that first video, I stressed the importance of hiring black actresses to play slaves.

When I went to the preview on April 14, I was greatly disappointed.

 

Betty Bonifassi is the lead singer of SLĀV, a Robert Lepage production being featured at the Montreal Jazz Festival based on slave songs. (Radio-Canada/Julie Mainville)

In terms of its theatricality, it is excellent; I was impressed by the technical quality of the scenes. However, throughout the performance, I was left deeply uncomfortable by the lack of diversity on stage. Seeing white women portray slaves was, for me, problematic.

Nothing can justify the failure to hire black singers or actresses for the project. It would have been easy to find women to play these roles in Quebec City, Montreal, Ottawa or Toronto.

Like it or not, the question of race is at the very heart of the American slave system. It was purged from the piece. We cannot talk about slavery in the Americas without addressing this issue.

Invisible or ‘exoticized’

For several years now, people in the black community have been denouncing the great lack of diversity in Quebec’s media and cultural space.

Now that a piece about a traumatic experience lived by blacks in America is taking centre stage, what are whites doing in most of the roles?

Therein lies the entire problem: a blatant lack of sensitivity and, because they have the power to do it, the appropriation of the narrative of a community — the telling of our story as they see fit.

Sadly, we are all too familiar with being made invisible this way.

It is time people understood that members of our communities are sick of feeling discarded or, when they are present, being “exoticized.”

We are fed up with being told what to think and how we should feel about these issues. It is high time we had a real conversation about this tiny place reserved for us in the public space, even when it is our history that is being portrayed on stage.

About 50 protesters demonstrated outside the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde when Robert Lepage’s production of SLĀV, featuring singer Betty Bonifassi, opened earlier this week. (CBC)

Missed opportunity

I’m not the type to cry cultural appropriation, but this project leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.

How many people will profit from this piece, staged so skillfully, but whose cultural and financial benefits will probably never be seen by members of the black community?

How many other blacks were consulted or asked to collaborate on this piece?

The creators approached me to answer questions about the history of slavery, but others should have been consulted to make sure the subject of slavery was treated with sensitivity, to ensure it would be universally accepted.

It would have been good if SLĀV could have served as a bridge, and everyone could have seen themselves represented in it.

Unfortunately, it seems to me that this is another missed opportunity to highlight Quebecers of African descent.

For once, members of this community could have felt heard and represented in a cultural space. It’s a shame. I believe it could have been the start of a conversation.

Aka Aly Ndiaye, aka Webster, who has written, performed and lectured about the history of black slavery and Quebec, says the creators of SLĀV have shown ‘a blatant lack of sensitivity’ in casting white actresses in nearly all the roles of black slaves. (www.websterls.com)

Marilou Craft, the McGill law student and an activist who raised her concerns about SLĀV in an essay last December, has a right to be angry. Protesters’ anger is legitimate. We have too often trivialized this absence, and it is time to react.

It is too easy to claim freedom of expression and artistic expression. It is too easy to talk about a shared human heritage.

We are told we must go beyond a “racial” interpretation of this work, but these songs are born of racism.

We are told that we have to move on, but we are not starting from the same point: white Quebecers see themselves and are easily found in most of the cultural works produced here. We are not.

When Betty Bonifassi performs these songs in concert, I take pleasure in hearing her and seeing her perform. That is not the problem.

The problem lies in the staging and visual interpretation of this history which is so sensitive for black people. When black people do not see themselves on stage, we feel (once again) relegated to the back of the bus.

I understand the good intentions behind this piece.

However, celebrating slave songs — the medium of resistance and resilience of enslaved blacks — by ignoring current issues (namely, our underrepresentation in Quebec culture) is problematic.

The problem is, in a way, the refusal to take the responsibility that comes with the baggage, to take the songs out of the context in which they were created, to make their staging a simple cultural event devoid of their original meaning.

At the premiere, the audience — white — applauded the play.

The only two people of colour remained seated.

–Credit: CBC | Arts News