ST-JEROME, Que. — Betty Bonifassi, star of SLAV — a play that has forced a difficult conversation about race in Quebec — told a cheering crowd Tuesday night to sit back down because the show wasn’t over yet.
After the applause faded, Bonifassi broke character in front of the audience of more than 800 theatre-goers. Hobbling around the stage with the help of a cane, Bonifassi — known for singing the Oscar-nominated theme song for “The Triplets of Belleville” — made light of the injury she sustained last summer during the show’s original ill-fated run.
“Thank you for the warm reception,” she said at the sold-out theatre in St-Jerome, about 50 kilometres north of Montreal. “After all these twists and turns, I’d just about given up the ghost.”
Three performances into SLAV’s run at the Montreal International Jazz Festival last summer, the show was cancelled. Activists had protested outside the theatre and accused Bonifassi and the play’s renowned director, Robert Lepage — both of whom are white — of appropriating black culture.
SLAV is Lepage’s theatrical adaptation of a musical project by Bonifassi featuring songs composed by slaves, mostly from the southern United States. Slave songs sung by Bonifassi and the six other female characters are woven into a narrative about a white woman from Quebec City who learns she has a distant black ancestor who fled slavery.
Shortly after the play was cancelled, a defiant Lepage wrote openly of being “muzzled,” saying “everything that led to this cancellation is a direct blow to artistic freedom.” But since then, he has met with the group of activists who helped shut down his play and reworked the production with their input.
Before the revamped show’s first run in Sherbrooke last week, Lepage wrote an open letter acknowledging the “clumsiness and misjudgments” that led to the cancellation last summer. “As this new year begins,” Lepage wrote, “I resolve to do better.”
The new production includes three women of colour out of a total cast of seven women, including Bonifassi. The original production had only two black women. Another change is that the white characters no longer pick cotton, a scene in the show’s first run that was drew criticism. The majority of the raw scenes depicting slavery are now performed by singers of colour.
Lepage’s evolution on his work has mirrored a larger debate in Quebec over who should tell the stories of historically oppressed people. And French Canadians, long a minority under British rule, have grappled with accusations that they are now a dominant culture unwilling to share power.
Before Tuesday’s performance, 100 people attended a panel discussion at Theatre Gilles-Vigneault where artists discussed minority representation in Quebec media and the meaning of “cultural appropriation.” The term was defined by panellists as a dominant culture appropriating the culture of people it dominates.
Patrick Charette-Dionne, 35, who attended the panel discussion, said the controversy over SLAV last summer delivered an “electroshock” to Quebec society. In several years, Quebecers will look back and recognize their culture has changed, he predicted. “I think it’s a question of society maturing and the evolution of the ‘Quebec people.’ “
Louis-Georges Ferrand, 21, a theatre student in St-Jerome said it’s “immoral” and “unethical” for white people to put on a show about black culture without — at the very least — including members of the black community in the process.
“We are in a privileged situation as white people and if we don’t consult we risk making errors,” he said. While Quebecers were once dominated by the English, they can’t use that an excuse to ignore current problems of minority representation in the arts. “We need to recognize that as settlers, we are privileged, and we need to give more space and be more inclusive for (minorities).”
Martine Laval, 63, said Quebec’s history of domination has made it more welcoming. Minorities in Quebec aren’t oppressed, she explained, but integrated into society. “But we were dominated once, and maybe that’s why we have such an openness to other cultures — because we lived through a colonization,” she said.
After Bonifassi thanked the crowd, she and the other six cast members ended the show with a musical number set in a garment factory, representing the modern slave-like conditions of women in impoverished countries making products for westerners. When it was over, the audience gave a second standing ovation.
In the lobby, most people approached liked the show. Michele Ratelle, 64, said she found it “touching,” and didn’t understand all the criticism. “I was just thinking about that, why all this controversy? For me, this show paid homage to the oppression that was experienced.”
Charette-Dionne, who stayed for the show after the panel discussion, was disappointed. While he was happy the play increased awareness of the need to open up the arts to more minority representation, he said SLAV was essentially a show for white people.
“It’s Betty Bonifassi appropriating the themes of slavery to say things,” he said, noting the standing ovations came from an almost exclusively white crowd. “It’s a question of audience. I think we see tonight the audience that is typical for this kind of thing.”
Giuseppe Valiante, The Canadian Press