The young guy from Mumbai standing next to me outside Montreal’s Théâtre du Nouveau Monde couldn’t believe that the noisy people in front of us were protesting a show they hadn’t seen. I tried to tell him that the problem wasn’t just what was yet to be seen, but what was yet to be heard, from SLĀV creators Robert Lepage and Betty Bonifassi.
Mr. Lepage, the most prominent figure in Quebec theatre, and Ms. Bonifassi, a Montreal singer of high reputation, had months, if not years to think about whether the materials on which their show is based – songs created by African-American slaves and labourers – were theirs to handle however they chose. They had lots of time to think about how those songs are embedded in the experience and collective memory of the black community. They could have asked themselves whether the show would profit, artistically and morally, from a discussion with those for whom these anonymous works are a proud and painful cultural heritage.
Instead, they made statements about universality and “not seeing” colour. “We don’t talk about black and white in the show,” Ms. Bonifassi told The Montreal Gazette, as if race wasn’t an essential element in black slavery. They stretched their show’s historical frame of reference to encompass the enslavement of Europeans during the Middle Ages, although the piece remains rooted in songs particular to the African-American experience. They talked about diversity, while saying that it was up to the paying public – which in most theatres is mostly white – to decide whether what they did with the songs was okay.
SLĀV opened on Tuesday, with two black performers in its six-person chorus. Reviews have been mixed, but the issue is not just whether Mr. Lepage and Ms. Bonifassi can please an audience. The issue is whether they conducted themselves with due respect for the context of slavery in the Americas, and for its continuing aftermath in the lives of their fellow citizens. We’re not talking about a fictional contemporary narrative that includes characters who are black. SLĀV is a show built on real artifacts of a people’s suffering.
The songs matter in a singular way to black people because they still live under the shadow of power relations that enabled slavery, and that today perpetuate racial discrimination. Not consulting with those people, while making equivalences with medieval white slavery, comes very close to saying, “Yeah, that happened to my people too, maybe you should get over it like we did.”
Another thing wrong with this picture is the power imbalance between the show’s producers and the people they’re not talking to. Mr. Lepage and Ms. Bonifassi were in a position to get grants to develop their show, to sell it to the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, to line up four regional partners who will present it next year, and to open at one of Montreal’s most revered theatres. With all that came a promotional and media apparatus that naturally made it more likely that their view of their show would be the one that the public heard about.
That’s a big reason why there was a demonstration before the premiere. People at all times and places go into the street when they feel their voices aren’t heard. In this case, Mr. Lepage and Ms. Bonifassi have been taking up most of the oxygen, without really addressing the issues with their creative choices, or showing respect to those who have been raising said issues since the jazz festival announced the show late last year. “Letting the audience decide” sounds democratic, but a vote in this case costs at least $60, and deferring the matter to the judgment of others is a polite way of shutting down the discussion.
Imagine if this show were about a much more recent outrage committed against a racial minority, with many direct victims still alive and a huge number of traumatized descendants still living in systemically disadvantaged conditions. Can you imagine an all-white creative team presenting a musical theatre piece about the residential schools atrocity, with no input from any Indigenous people?
If not, how can SLĀV and everything that led up to its presentation be okay? It doesn’t matter whether the show gets a good review, or sells out more of its 16 Montreal performances. Something about it is wrong at the core, and has been for a long time, and will be even after the last show closes.