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  • Lepage and Mnouchkine Collide with Cultural Appropriation
  • Michel Vaïs (bio)

In the summer of 2018, in Montreal, two shows staged by the internationally acclaimed director Robert Lepage had caused a clash between two groups: major artists on one side, representatives of minority groups on the other side. This resulted in unprecedented demonstrations and accusations of "cultural appropriation," at first against Lepage, and later against the distinguished Théâtre du Soleil director Ariane Mnouchkine. The two shows were SLÃV, written with the songs of black slaves, and Kanata, which tells the history of Canada from the point of view of people of the First Nations.

The first show, SLÃV, was closed down after only three performances at the Montreal Jazz Festival at the end of June because of violent demonstrations, mainly from black people in front of the theatre, claiming that there were not enough black artists on the stage. The term "cultural appropriation" then appeared to denounce the fact that the culture of blacks was used mainly by white people. The protesters, most of whom had not seen the show, shouted at the spectators that they were racist or white supremacists. Although Robert Lepage had consulted black historians and artists, he only included two black female singers out of six in his show. To the demonstrators, this appeared as a mistake: You cannot show black slaves singing, to survive in the cotton fields, if the singers are not black.

I must note, however, that the main actress, Betty Bonifassi, is a French singer whose ancestors were Serbian, and she wanted to show an image of slavery not only in the American cotton fields, but everywhere. She reminded that the word "slave" originally refers to people in Slavonic countries, like Serbia. … Furthermore, Bonifassi has been singing those songs of the cotton slaves for many years now. [End Page 71]

The second show, Kanata, was due to open in Paris at Théâtre du Soleil's home at the Cartoucherie in December 2018. When it was announced in Montreal, in July, just after SLÃV was canceled, it created a second uproar around Lepage. I must mention that while this was happening, he was about to finish staging The Magic Flute for the Québec City Opera Festival, and his staging of Shakespeare's Coriolanus was playing in Canada's Stratford Festival, with a black actor playing the title role.

However, due to the uproar in the First Nations community of Québec, accusing Lepage of "cultural appropriation," as black protesters had done, he and Mnouchkine (who came to Montreal especially from Paris for one day) met some thirty artists from the First Nations community. Finally, Lepage announced on July 26 that Kanata, on which he had been working for four years with the actors of Théâtre du Soleil, was canceled because a major co-producer from New York decided to withdraw his participation in view of the demonstrations in Montreal, long before the show was even presented there.

Later, after intense discussions about the freedom of expression of the artists and the right of black and First Nations artists to be more visible on stage, Ariane Mnouchkine announced on September 5 that Kanata would be shown in Paris at the Cartoucherie from December 15 during the Festival d'Automne. The new title of the play was now: Kanata—1st Episode—The Controversy. It was also announced that director Lepage would finish his work as director, as was originally planned, but that he accepted to do this as a volunteer without being paid.

The issue here is whether or not artists can play the roles of characters identified with groups to which they do not belong. Are only Jews allowed to denounce the Holocaust? Wouldn't it be strange if Italians alone were allowed to talk about the mafia? As one writer said, "History does not belong only to the victims." These questions seem absurd, but the participation of actors from minority groups in theatre activity is a very serious one. This is a call for more diversity in the Québec theatre, as in society.

Many intellectuals and some leading artists wrote letters to the media to...


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pp. 71-74
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