Various black actors and artists who spoke out about a Quebec-produced show featuring a largely white cast singing songs composed by black slaves say they want the broader conversation surrounding the controversy to continue.
The group calling itself the SLĀV Resistance Collective said on Wednesday it hopes the discussion that culminated in the Montreal International Jazz Festival cancelling the SLĀV show will prompt further debate on issues like race, cultural appropriation and white privilege.
The collective would like several demands resolved, including an increased presence of black people in the province’s cultural and social milieu as well as better diversity as a whole.
It is also wants the brain trust of a Montreal theatre that hosted SLĀV performances to apologize; federal and provincial arts funding bodies to set aside projects for minority communities; and Quebec media to provide equivalent space to black voices and views.
“We’re artists, thinkers and we like to create so I hope we can go back to creating,” said Elena Stoodley, a Montreal composer and performer.
“We want to go to back to our lives, we hope also to continue the conversation [and] we’re willing to discuss with anyone who is willing to be educated, to discuss the issues.”
SLĀV, one of the hottest tickets at this year’s jazz festival before its cancellation, was the subject of protests from the get-go and was called out for appropriation of black culture and history.
It features a predominantly white cast picking cotton and singing songs composed by black slaves.
The show was billed as “a theatrical odyssey based on slave songs” and described by the producers as a journey “through traditional Afro-American songs, from cotton fields to construction sites, railroads, from slave songs to prison songs.”
Robert Lepage, the renowned Quebec stage director behind the SLĀV show, last week called the cancellation a direct attack on artistic freedom.
He said theatre involves stepping into the shoes of another to understand that person, often borrowing looks, voices, accents and even gender for the duration of a performance.
“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,” Mr. Lepage wrote.
Jazz festival officials pushed back on Saturday, insisting the decision was not an act of censorship, but was made for various reasons, including an injury to the main performer, Montreal singer Betty Bonifassi, as well as security considerations raised by the escalating vitriol surrounding the show.
The collective’s Ricardo Lamour said community members met late last week with L’ É quipe Spectra, which organizes the jazz festival, calling it a fruitful start without any firm commitments being made.
The group stressed the importance of continuing dialogue with various players and stakeholders, including Mr. Lepage if he’s open to it.
SLĀV performances are scheduled in other parts of Quebec next year, but the collective say it has said its piece on the matter and that it now is up to others in society to discuss the representation of black culture, including the media.
“We feel like we expressed ourselves,” Ms. Stoodley said. “It’s in their hands [Mr. Lepage and his company Ex-Machina]. It’s their decision.”
The collective agreed the issues raised by the show may have been uncomfortable, but that it was necessary to do so.
“If your justification for supporting the show ‘SLĀV’ is to give a voice to the voiceless and put the historical issue of racism and slavery forward, then listening to what black folk have to say should be your priority,” said Mikayla Harris, one of the activists on hand on Wednesday.