About 75 protesters shouted “shame” to evening diners on Tuesday at a sunny terrasse outside a downtown theatre that was hosting a show directed by a white man, featuring a white woman singing songs composed by black slaves.
The sold-out for show by Quebec director Robert Lepage for Montreal’s international jazz festival is a racist appropriation of black culture, said Lucas Charlie Rose, a hip-hop artist who organized the protest.
White people should not be profiting from the history, culture and pain of black people, he said.
“I don’t believe the descendents of the people who wrote these songs are going to see this show,” said Rose, shortly before the protest.
“It’s something we see a lot in the entertainment industry — the taking of these stories of black pain and stories of slavery by white people in order to make a profit. That’s what we are against.”
Called “SLAV: A theatrical odyssey based on slave songs,” the show is described by the theatre as a journey “through traditional Afro-American songs, from cotton fields to construction sites, railroads, from slave songs to prison songs.”
The show’s premier was scheduled to start at 8 p.m. Tuesday. As the start time approached, protesters surrounded the theatre’s entrance and yelled at patrons trying to enter.
Police had to form a cordon blocking protesters in order to allow people to enter the show. Ticket-holders faced barrage of shouts and chants such as “cancel the show” as they made their way into the theatre.
“SLAV” is one of the most popular events at Montreal’s annual jazz festival, and the theatre added an extra 11 shows after the first five were sold out.
Betty Bonifassi, a Montreal-based singer known for her Oscar-nominated work on the soundtrack of “Les Triplettes de Belleville,” is the main performer in the show.
When reached by telephone on Tuesday, a clearly irritated Bonifassi had no desire to talk about the controversy.
“I have nothing to say; I’m preparing for the show,” she said.
‘Shame on you’
Protesters shouted through a loudspeaker at diners, who a few moments before the action began, sat quietly at tables eating and drinking adjacent to a part of Saint-Catherine Street closed to pedestrian traffic, just outside the festival’s main stages.
Lepage and Bonifassi released a joint statement Tuesday on Facebook in which they said, “Yes, the history of slavery, in all its various forms, belongs first and foremost to those who have been oppressed and to the descendants of those people.”
“Diversity and its artistic potential are at the heart of SLAV as much as the legacy of slavery. Do we have the right to tell these stories? Audience members will have the opportunity to decide after having seen the show.”
Activist Vincent Mousseau spoke at the protest and told the 75 gathered that the producers of the show are “co-opting our pain, co-opting our suffering, co-opting our history — for $60-$90 a ticket.”
“Shame on you.”