‘The work isn’t over,’ say black artists after cancellation of SLĀV

A group of black Montreal artists is hoping to turn the cancellation of SLĀV, a controversial play about slavery featuring a mostly white cast, into an opportunity to encourage diversity in Quebec’s arts scene.

They outlined a list of demands at a news conference Wednesday that goes far beyond the show being cancelled by the Montreal Jazz Fest. 

“Our remaining demands seek not to address the show itself, but the broader conditions that gave rise to this show,” said Mikayla Harris, a Montreal artist who is part of the collective.

The group, known as the SLĀV Resistance Collective, wants the provincial government, as well as private sponsors, to emphasize diversity in its funding of the arts.

The province’s recently announced $600-million cultural policy falls short on support for minorities in the arts, the group said.   

They also called on Quebec media to provide more space to black voices.

The vast majority of opinion pieces about the debate were penned by white columnists who sometimes failed to understand what critics were upset about, Harris said.

“The media’s lack of understanding of cultural appropriation, for example, leads to caricatures of the arguments of SLĀV’s critics and an unnecessarily divisive debate,” Harris said.

Show goes on outside Montreal

SLĀV, by Quebec director Robert Lepage, features a predominantly white cast picking cotton and singing songs composed by black slaves. 

Protesters gathered outside the theatre hosting the play on opening night in late June. 

About 50 protesters demonstrated outside the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde when Robert Lepage’s production of SLĀV, featuring singer Betty Bonifassi, opened in Montreal. (CBC)

U.S. musician Moses Sumney also cancelled his own show at the festival in protest.

Performances of SLĀV are still planned for Sherbrooke, Drummondville and Saguenay. The group said it wouldn’t protest those shows but is hopeful the “discussion would continue.”

Quincy Armorer, artistic director of the Montreal-based Black Theatre Workshop, told The Canadian Press the story SLĀV tells has a place in art and theatre, but black people should play a prominent role in telling these narratives.

“There are appropriate, respectful and ethical ways of producing the work, and I suppose I was happy to hear the production had been cancelled [in Montreal],” said Armorer, whose theatre company is in its 48th season.

“And that was diminished when I found out it was going to continue in its current form.”

He said the fact that a play of this nature — created by a white man and featuring a predominantly white cast picking cotton on stage — can be performed in Quebec in 2018 shows “people don’t really care.”

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