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Robert Lepage is pictured in Toronto on May 11, 2018.

Nam Phi Dang

Robert Lepage is a brilliant artist, but a terrible listener.

The statement the Quebec director released on Friday, two days after the cancellation of SLAV, his mostly white “theatrical odyssey based on slave songs,” suggests that he’s entirely shut his ears to criticism of his work outside of francophone Quebec for the past three decades.

Or that he’s been insulated from it by his entourage, to his own detriment, as the events of the past weeks have dealt a serious blow to his reputation in North America.

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“Over the course of my career, I have devoted entire shows [to] denouncing injustices done throughout history to specific cultural groups, without actors from said groups,” Lepage wrote. “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.”

This is pretty astonishing to read as, in fact, there is ample popular and academic critical discourse around Lepage’s problematic depictions of “specific cultural groups” other than his own.

Indeed, SLAV isn’t even Lepage’s first show at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal to come under such scrutiny.

What happened this week is quite similar to a controversy that erupted over Zulu Time, another collaboration between Lepage and a musician (Peter Gabriel, in that case), at the jazz festival in 2002. It had an almost all-white cast playing a diverse group of international characters. In his review for The Globe and Mail, critic Alan Conter wrote that he had entered hoping for a “real exploration of hybrid culture,” but instead found “cultural pastiche – most of it embarrassing, some of it painful.”

“To set up the appearance of a white actor caked in grey clay and clad as a Hollywood Zulu warrior was a short excerpt from the 1964 film Zulu,” wrote Conter. “This isn’t so much a cultural hybrid as awkward appropriation. What was [Lepage] thinking?”

I guess no one at his company Ex Machina passed along that clipping. But these sorts of criticisms of Lepage’s work go back even further – as scholar Karen Fricker, who is now theatre critic at the Toronto Star, outlined a decade ago in an article for a French-language journal contrasting reception of the director’s work by francophone critics in his home province with anglophone critics in Canada and around the world.

Take The Dragons’ Trilogy, the 1987 six-hour epic helmed by Lepage that helped make him an international star and chronicled a Quebec family’s relationships with immigrants from China, Japan and Britain. Canadian academic Barbara Godard wrote it “contributed to perpetuation of Orientalism,” while Financial Times reviewer Martin Hoyle complained an English character in it was painted “in the crude and uncomprehending colours one associates with Western devils.”

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I could go on and on listing similar critical complaints – from the “whiff of cultural colonialism” in Lepage’s mid-nineties show The Seven Streams of the River Ota (according to Michael Billington, the respected critic for the Guardian in Britain) to the “vile depiction of Jews” in his production of The Busker’s Opera in 2004 (from Conter, again, in The Globe).

Now, normally, I don’t recommend that artists read their reviews. But it is disconcerting that Lepage somehow thinks his career has never come under criticism from this angle – and it also suggests that the Montrealers who protested SLAV outside the theatre had to take to the streets to be heard (if not listened to).

I understand that Lepage and his collaborator on SLAV, singer Betty Bonifassi, believe their show denounces injustice, rather than reproducing it – as some critics argued – by once again using a product of black slavery for the profit of (mainly) white people.

I don’t know about “cultural appropriation.” But if you’re making a play about slavery, using African-American slave songs, and it leads members of the African diaspora to protest or pull out of a festival alongside you – well, it’s pretty clear you’ve gone about “denouncing injustices done throughout history to specific cultural groups” in the wrong way.

Should a show that fails in its objective so spectacularly be shut down? I think that’s up to the producers and the creators – as I’m not in favour of censorship.

The Montreal jazz festival and Bonifassi said earlier this week that, after listening to protesters, they decided together to close SLAV. Now, Lepage says he has been “muzzled.” And he doesn’t mean by his collaborators, but by “the intolerant discourse heard both on the street and in some media.”

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Sorry, Robert, your production of Coriolanus at Stratford is still amazing, but your impersonation of the brilliant but proud and stubborn Roman general himself is not: Peaceful protest and theatre criticism are free speech, too.

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