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People protest SLAV, a show billed as ‘a theatrical odyssey based on slave songs’, on June 26, 2018.

Olivier Jean/La Presse

The Festival International de Jazz de Montréal cancelled all remaining performances of SLĀV, a show billed as “a theatrical odyssey based on slave songs,” on Wednesday – in response to a week of on- and off-stage protests accusing director Robert Lepage and co-creator and star Betty Bonifassi, both of whom are white, of profiting off the music of enslaved black people.

“Honestly, we’re extremely happy,” said Sophia Sahrane, a member of SLĀV Resistance, a protest group that had sent out a letter signed by 1,500 “concerned Montrealers” earlier in the day demanding the show be shut down. “But we also need to look into the culture that allowed for this show to exist.”

SLĀV made headlines across Canada last week after a local hip-hop artist named Lucas Charlie Rose organized a protest outside the first performance of the show at the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde (TNM). Speakers at the protest denounced Lepage, Canada’s best-known stage director, and Bonifassi, a popular singer who performed on the soundtrack for the Oscar-nominated film The Triplets of Belleville, as “racists.”

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Musical artists performing in the Montreal jazz festival continued to speak out against SLĀV – which featured a majority white cast playing enslaved people across history – this week. Nomadic Massive, a local hip-hop group, criticized the show and wore T-shirts with the words “faites mieux” (“do better”) during their outdoor set at the jazz festival on Monday night, while the next day, African-American singer-songwriter Moses Sumney pulled out of the festival entirely and instead headlined his own sold-out concert off-site.

Sumney, who posted a letter on social media citing Bonifassi’s earlier comments to a local newspaper that she did not see colour and that “All cultures and ethnicities suffer the same,” brought increased international attention to the controversy at a festival that, according to one recent study, attracted over 200,000 tourists to Montreal and generated $48.5-million in economic spin-offs in 2017. His online supporters included Win Butler, the lead singer of the Montreal-born band Arcade Fire, who tweeted: “Wake up Quebec, and listen.”

The Festival International de Jazz de Montréal had initially defended SLĀV in the face of the protests. The show was the subject of heated debate in Quebec between those who felt it was misguided or cultural appropriation, and others who accused protesters of censorship.

Few commentators actually got to see SLĀV first-hand, however – it was only performed a few times before a string of performances were called off due to a broken ankle suffered by Bonifassi, the festival had said in releases.

The jazz festival’s announcement on Wednesday was a U-turn from previous communications. “The Festival team has been shaken and strongly affected by all comments received,” read a statement sent out by L’Équipe Spectra, which produces the festival. “We would like to apologize to those who were hurt. It was not our intention at all.”

The festival said the decision to cancel had been made with Bonifassi – but did not mention Lepage, and referred journalists to his company Ex Machina for comment.

A statement sent out by Ex Machina said that Lepage was “currently working on a new creation but promises to react to the controversy surrounding the show SLĀV before the end of the week.”

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As for SLĀV Resistance, Sahrane notes that the letter sent out on Wednesday listed a number of other demands she hopes will continue to get attention. Signatories have called for Ex Machina, the TNM, the jazz festival and public funders to dedicate more resources toward artists from “Black, Indigenous and other communities of colour,” and asked the Quebec Premier and minister of culture to “rectify the present racial inequalities in public funding for the arts in Quebec that has led to productions like SLĀV. ”

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