- Cultures Are Not Anyone's Property
Cultural appropriation is a label that has been applied to creations not only in the performing arts, but also in fashion, food, film, books, and other forms of cultural manifestation. When is a cultural element appropriated, and when is it used in a cross-cultural exchange experience enriching both sides of the cultural spectrum? Who does culture belong to?
In 2018, the devised theatre piece Kanata, by Canadian writer and director Robert Lepage and the actors of the renowned French company Théâtre du Soleil, whose subject matter ranged over a two-hundred-year history of First Nations Canadian native peoples, was shrouded in controversy around issues of cultural appropriation and exclusion. "Kanata," the Iroquois word for village, gave its name to Canada. The controversy stemmed from the fact that there were no Native North Americans in the cast, that none had been consulted while creating the play over its more than three-year process of creation, and that the history of First Nations was being told from an exclusively white point of view. Lepage was accused of cultural appropriation, and whether he had any right to tell a story considered the exclusive right of its "owners," namely the Native Canadian populations. A group of protesters formed of Native and non-Native people wrote an open letter in the Canadian papers, asking to be included in the process. It stated: "The Indigenous movement has shown in recent years that it is a mistake to erase us from the public space. … We are not invisible and we will not be quiet." As the protests surrounding Kanata erupted, one of the North American investors pulled out, making it impossible for the production to continue. It had been scheduled to open in Québec City, and then move to Montreal, New York, and Paris. None of the North American performances took place.
As a result of the protests, on July 19, 2018, in Montreal, Lepage and Ariane Mnouchkine, director of Théâtre du Soleil, which is based at the Cartoucherie [End Page 65] in Paris, agreed to meet with the protestors and discuss the creative process of the show. In an interview with Lepage by Mélanie Drouère, published in the program of Kanata—Episode I—The Controversy, which was eventually produced in Paris, he explains that prior to the start of the actual creation process, there were trips taken within the First Nations peoples to "immerse oneself into the yesterday and today of these populations."
"We spent time in the Canadian West, not only in the tribal territories in the mountains, but also in the urban centres, such as Vancouver, in order to better understand the problems in an urban setting. And only at this time the real creative work or exploration, improvisations, and writing started, over one to two-week sessions, either in Canada or at the Cartoucherie."
When asked about the importance of the identify question, and how central it was for the creation of Kanata, Lepage responded by saying that it was of utmost importance and that the French company, composed of Afghans, South Americans, Australians, and actors of all types of origins, some of whom are refugees themselves or those who made the choice of exile, gave their characters a universal tenor. These actors brought to the performance their own experiences of exile and of being torn from their lands. By allowing themselves to "play the other," as Lepage puts it, they were able to relive the emotions and tell the history of the other, in this case the Native Canadians. Lepage goes on to describe an incident during the research period in the Rockies, where the Théâtre du Soleil company actors took part in a dance workshop, when suddenly the Afghan actors had a strong emotional reaction since the geography of these mountains reminded them of their own country.
Part of the agreement of this co-creation was that the international and fully diverse cast of Théâtre du Soleil was to be used for the new work. (This is the first time they were directed by someone other than...