After facing massive controversy, the Montreal International Jazz Festival has canceled SLĀV, a stage production that featured a predominantly white cast dressed as black slaves singing slave songs. The production, billed as “a theatrical odyssey based on slave songs,” was directed by Robert Lepage and starred the Oscar-nominated singer Betty Bonifassi.
In response to early criticism, Bonifassi countered that the project was well-researched and that she had fifteen years of experience singing slaves songs. She asserted that she and her colleagues were not guilty of cultural appropriation, saying that she doesn’t see color and that “all cultures and ethnicities suffer the same.”
During the show’s first performance, a group of protestors who were predominately people of color gathered outside of Montreal’s Théâtre du Nouveau Monde. They confronted the show’s majority white audience and sang slave songs. One black protester was slapped by a white audience member.
One group, SLAV Resistance, circulated a letter of protest signed by over 1,500 people expressed “astonishment and disgust” at the production. Included in the group’s requests was the cancellation of the show, as well as the adoption of equality policies at the Festival and the allocation of more resources to Black artists and artists of color in Québec.
Despite the controversy, the show was one of the most popular attractions at the festival, selling over 8,000 tickets across 16 shows. The performances were initially put on hold after Bonifassi broke her ankle, but even while the performances were stopped, outrage continued to build. Most visibly, African-American singer-songwriter Moses Sumney, who had been scheduled to perform at the festival, announced on Twitter that he would not perform, opting instead to play a sold-out show at another Montreal venue. SLĀV was canceled the next day.
Festival organizers stated that the decision to shut down the show was made in conjunction with Bonifassi. In a statement released July 3, organizers said that they had been “shaken and strongly affected by all comments received” and apologized “to those who were hurt.” Ticketholders are being offered refunds.
The show’s director Robert Lepage, a noted Canadian playwright and stage director, is known for his explosive theatrics which often require complex technology. Famously, his production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle created for the Metropolitan Opera cost a cool $16 million, in no small part because it featured a 45-ton set that required the Met to reinforce its stage with steel supports.
The ambitious set attracted great controversy, prompted various safety concerns, and presented numerous technical glitches, including one in which a projector flashed the Windows logo of a rebooting computer during a live performance. Critic Alex Ross denounced the production as “the most witless and wasteful production in modern operatic history.”
Speaking to the Canadian newspaper the Globe and Mail, a member of SLAV Resistance said that the organization was happy that the show was shut down, but that it was important to “look into the culture that allowed for this show to exist.”