Montreal Gazette Dunlevy; Post-SLĀV and Kanata, let's talk about cultural appropriation

The dust may have settled on SLĀV and Kanata, but there are still lessons to learn from the outcry surrounding Robert Lepage’s controversial stage productions that engulfed the Quebec cultural scene this past summer.

So hope the organizers of Cause or Consequence: Cultural Appropriation or Cultural Hegemony, a talk being held at Concordia University on Monday evening.

The discussion is an opportunity to continue the conversation, according to Rahul Varma, whose Teesri Duniya Theatre conceived the discussion in partnership with Concordia. On Friday morning, Varma and director-activist Deborah Forde, who has worked frequently with Teesri Duniya and will moderate Monday’s meeting, explained their motivations for reviving the debate.

“Some of the arguments made by Mr. Lepage mentioned the censorship of artistic freedom and censorship of free speech, when clearly it’s not,” Varma said. “He has a right to speak; I have a right to speak. Censorship is when the state uses institutions to suppress the voice of citizens, which it did not.

“People protested. The protesters decided that this play had something inherently wrong with it and must not go on. As a consequence of that protest, (SLĀV) was cancelled. (His) argument is bogus.”

Lepage came under fire for using mostly white performers to portray black slaves in SLĀV, presented as part of the Montreal International Jazz Festival and cancelled after only three performances; and for casting no Indigenous actors in Kanata, which revisits Canadian Indigenous history. (The latter show, initially cancelled, will now be presented under the title Kanata — Épisode I — La Controverse, in Paris in December.)

Although the uproar around the two shows yielded no satisfying resolution, bringing the topic of cultural appropriation into the open represents progress, Forde believes.

“One of the things Lepage gave us is momentum,” she said. “For the first time, we’re having these discussions outside the community — the New York Times carried the story.

“There needs to be change, and certain voices that were under-represented are being heard. This was a critical turning point. In that moment, you can do something. These are problems we need to solve, and we won’t solve them until we get together.”

Panelists at Monday’s discussion include: academic, art critic and curator James Oscar, one of the people behind the original SLĀV protest; Indigenous playwright and visiting Concordia professor Floyd Favel; and Concordia professor Luis Carlos Sotelo Castro.

“We’re looking for a public dialogue between theatre practitioners and the academic community,” Varma said. “Because it’s a joint struggle. I’ve been deeply involved in theatre over the last 35 years, and a good part of my advocacy has been about representation, inclusion and equity. I see a link between this issue, regarding SLĀV and Kanata, and the cultural policies that helped this to happen.”

Forde sees a connection between the SLĀV/Kanata controversies and the politicization of immigration and religious symbols in Quebec society.

“Lepage’s entitlement is the same as (incoming Quebec premier) François Legault when he speaks about ‘those immigrants.’ They’re coming from the same place.”

She and Varma hope Monday’s talk provides an opportunity for people to exchange ideas, with a view to putting those ideas into action.

“We want to go beyond the protest aspect of this incident, to see what are the reasons why (these kinds of things) continue to happen,” Varma said. “How can we understand and make recommendations for advocacy? It’s important for Canada’s art to survive, with the inclusion of all the communities that make up Canada as a country. If we continue to marginalize people, then art will lose its universality.”

For Forde, it’s about finding the convergence point between the personal and the political.

“This event actually hurt people,” she said. “When I woke up to what was going on, I was stunned. One thing I hope people get from this conference is an understanding of what needs to be done, how to attack this systemic problem. People can’t take on the whole world, but you can take up one corner, sink your teeth in and make the wheel spin for change.”

Teesri Duniya Theatre’s coming events include a production of Stephen Orlov’s play Birthmark (“about building a better relationship between Jewish and Palestinian communities in Montreal,” Varma said), directed by Liz Valdez and Michelle Soicher, at the MAI, Nov. 3 to 18; and the Fireworks Playwrights Showcase, featuring script readings by emerging playwrights, Nov. 24 at the MAI. For more information, visit teesriduniyatheatre.com.

AT A GLANCE: Cause or Consequence: Cultural Appropriation or Cultural Hegemonytakes place Monday at 6:30 p.m. at Concordia’s D.B. Clarke Theatre, 1455 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W. Admission is free.

tdunlevy@postmedia.com

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Due to incorrect information supplied to the Montreal Gazette, an earlier version of this story stated that Concordia professor Jessica Carmichael is on the panel for Monday’s discussion. In fact, Carmichael said she told organizers she would not be able to participate.