The Response to SLĀV Has Exposed Quebec’s Racial Tensions

The show, which featured mostly white actors singing black slave songs, shows how black artists are often excluded from telling their own stories.

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Jul 17 2018, 2:28pm

Image via Facebook, User. Ex Machina. 

The controversial production of SLĀV and the subsequent backlash that Robert Lepage’s Ex Machina has faced has both galvanized and exposed the existing racial tensions that are common-place in Québec society and across North America. Artists, intellectuals, editorialists and the general public have traded barbs on both the merits of the project as well as on wider questions of cultural appropriation, artistic freedom, and censorship.

The debacle has been draining for many Black and racialized individuals as they are once again being told by the dominant culture not only that their feelings, concerns, and experiences are invalid, but that their protest tactics are too extreme. This is nothing new, as there has never been a Black-led social resistance that hasn’t been met by widespread scorn and scrutiny. For all the many and varied tactics and approaches that have been tried, none has ever been considered the “right” or acceptable way for Black individuals to protest against injustices. Some have even gone so far as to accuse SLĀV’s detractors of cultural and intellectual terrorism, speaking to the painful truth that Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors describes in her best-selling memoir When They Call You a Terrorist.

A popular refrain from SLĀV supporters is that we rarely see depictions of slavery on Montréal stages and that any effort to tell those stories will lead to greater understanding of our collective history and shepherd in racial harmony. The truth of the matter is that it takes more than merely making any effort. Indeed, the proof of this lies in this instance of Ex Machina’s lack of inclusion of Black artists and communities throughout the creation process, despite cultural and historical specialists advising them to hire more Black actors and to be wary of the optics of showing white actors picking cotton on stage. Excluding Black artists and communities from their own stories while dismissing the validity of their point of view regarding their collective history and lived experiences reveals that their stated sentiments and intentions of exchange are in fact disingenuous.

The late Lorena Gale penned Angélique in 1997, a theatrical retelling of the life of Marie-Josèphe Angélique, an enslaved woman who was executed in 1734 for allegedly setting the fire that ravaged what we now know as Old Montréal. It is telling that it took twenty years for Gale’s play to be staged in Québec until Black Theatre Workshop and Tableau D’Hôte Theatre co-produced what went on to become an award-winning production and a highlight of the 2017 English Montréal theatre season.

While Angélique was written by a Black woman, featured Black actors in the lead roles, and was directed by renowned Black Montréal director Mike Payette, it also included white actors as well as several white members on the production and design teams. This intercultural, Black-led collaborative approach demonstrates that it is indeed possible to tell origin stories about the racism upon which our society and country are built in order to better understand and resist how it continues to manifest itself today.

Lepage is correct that art and theatre has the right to tell stories about anything and anyone. But no one has said that the stories depicted in SLĀV have no place in art. No one. And while there is indeed a place for all stories, not all stories are ripe for everyone and anyone to tell. As theatre artists, our first responsibility is to serve the stories that we share. Discarding the communities from which these stories are drawn does not only a disservice to them, but also to the art form. Sadly, the fact that SLĀV is slated to continue touring in Québec in its present form illustrates just how far we are from the racial harmony the show claims to champion.

Quincy Armorer is the Artistic Director of Black Theatre Workshop. Mathieu Murphy-Perron is the Artistic Producer of Tableau D’Hôte Theatre. Their co-production of Angélique will tour Ontario in 2019, and the French translation of the piece will be presented at a staged reading at Centre du Théâtre d’Aujourd’hui in December.

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