‘I resolve to do better’: Playwright Robert Lepage on 2018 race controversy

MONTREAL — Renowned Quebec director Robert Lepage is promising to be more racially sensitive with his work in the new year after two of his plays in 2018 were widely condemned by members of Quebec’s black and Indigenous communities.

In a public letter published Friday, Lepage — recognized around the world for his theatre productions — acknowledged ”clumsiness and misjudgments” that led to the cancellation of his play on black slavery last summer during the Montreal International Jazz Festival.

Called “SLAV,” the play included a mostly white cast picking cotton and singing black slave songs. Activists protested outside the theatre and accused Lepage of appropriating black pain for profit.

Lepage admits in the letter “the version of SLAV that we were presenting last June was far from finished and that perhaps it wasn’t by chance that the show’s dramaturgical problems corresponded exactly to the ethical problems the show was criticized for.”

The director and playwright didn’t make many public statements during the controversy and Friday’s letter goes into detail about his meeting with a group of black artists and activists whose protests helped cancel his play.

“… Unlike the angry far-left extremists depicted in certain media, the people I met with were welcoming, open, perceptive, intelligent, cultivated, articulate and peaceful,” Lepage wrote.

He said following the June protests “the content of SLAV has been reworked and rewritten” and the play is scheduled to be shown again in select theatres across the province beginning in January.

The Gilles-Vigneault theatre in Saint-Jerome, about 60 kilometres north of Montreal, is one of several venues scheduled to host SLAV, in early 2019. Tickets can still be purchased for dates in cities such as Sherbrooke, Drummondville and Saguenay.

“As this new year begins,” Lepage wrote, “I resolve to do better.”

Lepage committed in the letter to inviting a member of the activist group to rehearsals of SLAV to witness changes made to the show before it is remounted next month. He said he would make “structural changes” within his production company and will ”ensure a significant representation of people of African descent from Quebec City in the programming” of his upcoming new theatre in that city.

One of the artists and activists mentioned by name in the letter is Lucas Charlie Rose, whose initial posts on social media about SLAV helped trigger the protest movement against the play.

“I’m really happy this letter got posted,” Rose said in an interview. “I felt like it was important to show people that we are actually in contact. What happened this summer wasn’t just a controversy … but the start of a really important conversation that we hope is going to change the artistic climate in Quebec.”

Friday’s letter did not address the criticism surrounding another one of Lepage’s productions — ”Kanata” — a play about the relationship between whites and Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous activists and artists accused Lepage of producing a culturally insensitive play with little input from the communities portrayed.

The play was scheduled to run in Paris but was cancelled in July after American co-producers withdrew. But in September, Lepage announced the show would go on, reworked and under a new name: “Kanata — Episode 1 — The Controversy.” Three Indigenous artists from Quebec travelled to Paris in December to see the dress rehearsals for the show and came back disappointed.

Rose said he’s not optimistic the revamped “SLAV” will be better than the original.

“I’m very curious to see what it’s going to look like, and I speak for myself when I say this, but I’m skeptical,” he said. “I think the best thing to do, is to go back to the drawing board and put together a brand-new play.”

Rose, however, lauded Lepage’s commitment to including more black perspectives in his future work in Quebec City.

“Only good things can come out of something like that,” Rose said. “Because black people have a cultural power that is very important.”

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