Cultural Appropriation ‘Outrage’ Strikes Again – Musical Play ‘SLAV’ Suffers

Cultural Appropriation ‘Outrage’ Strikes Again – Musical Play ‘SLAV’ Suffers

Can those decrying cultural appropriation simultaneously sing the praises of multiculturalism with any logical consistency?

The latest outrage over cultural appropriation—the opportunistic use of cultural material foreign to one’s own—has occurred over famed Quebecois-Canadian stage and film director Robert Lepage, with furor surrounding his musical theater production titled “SLĀV”. Slated to be showcased at this year’s Montreal Jazz Festival, it was performed just thrice before getting the ax. The name alludes to a central theme of slave songs and culture, with actors representing the historical African American slaves to whom the music and culture ostensibly belong.
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It is that concept of cultural propriety which became the catalyst for an avalanche of negative criticism and denouncement directed towards SLĀV and its show-runners; the leads, and director Robert Lepage, were, for its short half-life, white. The slaves of America’s past were decidedly not white, but black, bondage foisted upon them primarily by ancestors of today’s white American population. It was an eventuality for which many would take umbrage with the production team–for casting non-black performers to represent American slaves. It is easy to interpret the decision as deliberately inflammatory or, at the very least, insensitive and tone-deaf. After all, slave music was the invention of slaves, not their holders. Slap on top the fact that only two of SLĀV’s six choristers were black, making the optics of every subsequent artistic choice seem like an intentional slight against the black community as a whole.
Wholesale castigation of the SLĀV team for these reasons was the popular reaction, reflected in a petition of protest against SLĀV’s presentation, accruing upward of 1500 signatories culminating in the show’s cancellation—but what were the actual attitudes and intentions of Lepage and his cohort in producing this work versus previous offerings? What is the relationship between art and appropriation, and how to distinguish one from the other?
In addendum to the cancellation of the show, Lepage penned a letter of address expressing his thoughts both as an artist and individual. Lepage gives a candid disclaimer that he and his team were aware of the sensitive nature of SLĀV’s subject matter and wanted to approach production with as much honour and fidelity as possible—a stark contrast from angrier characterisations of belligerent, callous, and ignorant opportunism. This does not absolve the SLĀV team, and makes the choice of using white performers to represent black slaves counter-intuitive . If high fidelity was the intended aim, why opt for a cast comprised almost exclusively of white people for this particular project?
Lepage gestures to a storied history of mismatching the identities of actors and characters in his artistic endeavours, all without resultant scandal. Combing that history raises skepticism toward allegations of racial prejudice, explicit or otherwise: Lepage’s Stratford mounting of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, put on just about a month before SLĀV’s debut, featured one André Sills as the lead — a choice hardly reproachable for tokenism. This reality seems at odds with critique featured in the Montreal Gazette given by McGill University’s Charmaine Nelson, a professor of art history:

The jazz festival’s desire to spotlight a white singer and producer, however accomplished … is part of a larger and ongoing problem of a Canadian desire to witewash certain deeply troubling colonial histories. This collective amnesia goes hand-in-hand with a rhetoric of colour blindness which allows … institutions to withhold certain opportunities from black Canadians and other black people.

cultural appropriation, slav, musical, montreal, culture wars
Andre Sills (left) as Coriolanus vs. Michael Blake (right) as Cominius. Photo credit: David Hou

It seems that even decorated scholars can be in error when speculating about the motivations behind choices made by artistic directors, and audacious enough to ascribe the same imagined nefarious intentions to Canadians writ large. Perhaps it is just as likely for laypeople to misdiagnose the internal attitudes of the SLĀV team towards minority groups. In the same Gazette article, lead performer Betty Bonifassi states:

I’m doing this with such a big heart, dignity, precision and research. I waited a long time to find the right way to make this work. I don’t see colour; to me, it doesn’t exist, physically or in music … People talk about whites taking black songs. Uniting two colours is modern. We don’t talk about black and white in the show. We talk about human pain, experienced together. All cultures and ethnicities suffer the same … We want to open a dialogue. … What I wanted profoundly was to bring people together, to create a show where we feel united, no matter who is talking, where there is no more colour or origin.

While it may be en vogue to equate social colour-blindness with glossing over some of the most stomach-turning episodes in recent history, it may not be fair to apply this criticism to Bonifassi, who is herself the daughter of a displaced former-Yugoslavian Serb. Moreover, she does not only claim being educated in such topics through formal venues, but from the company kept during; she spent university life absorbing autobiographies from a diverse cast of friends hailing from tragedy-stricken areas around the globe.  Additionally, Bonifassi has been singing slave songs for over 15 years, which may have had something to do with the decision to have her spearhead SLĀV onstage. At base, Bonifassi has been doing exactly what was demanded of the SLĀV team by the opposition, for the better part of her life.
There is detectable irony in the fact that many allegations of tone-deafness—as a co-morbid effect of colour-blindness—were based on a perceived refusal on the part of Bonifassi and Lepage to listen to the testimonies of critics. Lepage reveals this criticism to be empty:

That said, my team and I felt that, in the overcharged atmosphere created by our show, it would be wiser to remain silent since any statement we might make would throw oil on the fire.
As long as the show was being performed, it was speaking for itself and we didn’t have anything to add to the debate, which also allowed us to listen to the arguments of those who were opposed to our show being presented.

cultural appropriation, slav, musical, montreal, culture wars
Robert Lepage and Betty Bonifassi. Photo credit: Getty Images/AFP/Bertrand Guay and Radio-Canada/Julie Mainville

Despite readily-available background information, the public reflex was to excoriate the team of SLĀV for the sin of cultural appropriation. A separate, informal call to protest against SLĀV had been circulated on social media before the events precipitating its cancellation, citing the potential offense taken not just by attendees of the show, but generally, for its mere existence. I noticed the advertisement generating buzz on a friend’s timeline, and weighed in on the controversy of cultural appropriation, which to my understanding should be uncontroversial due to appropriation being the very mechanism of culture change. Appropriation is crucial to the evolution of one culture as a method of sampling the foreign elements of another into what is essentially a remix of both.

“Appropriation is crucial to the evolution of one culture as a method of sampling the foreign elements of another into what is essentially a remix of both.”

I first used the example of language change—it reliably occurs when two or more languages share space and speakers begin to interact for prolonged periods of time, borrowing, loaning, and fusing words, integrating  each other’s expressions into either a new dialect or a completely novel linguistic entity. I recounted to the thread’s surveyors how pidgins form as pseudo-languages early on and then evolve into fully-fledged creole languages with generational shift—the children of pioneers adopt and adapt the pidgin, securing its future by adding grammatical sophistication and complexity through continued use. I followed up by asking whom the English language belongs to, since it has changed so much, in so many ways, by so many speakers. Modern languages have numerous ancestors and become individuated with slight changes in use from person to person across time, making any specific language belong to anyone speaking it as truly and uniquely their own. Crickets in response.

cultural appropriation, slav, musical, montreal, culture wars
Protesters rally outside a presentation of SLĀV at Théâtre du Nouveau Monde on June 26. ALLEN MCINNIS / MONTREAL GAZETTE

A popular premise on which the idea of cultural appropriation is built is empathy, or lack thereof, but how does empathy figure into debates surrounding artistic freedom? Robert Lepage offers some insight:

Since the dawn of time, theatre has been based on a very simple principle, that of playing someone else. Pretending to be someone else. Stepping into the shoes of another person to try to understand them, and in the process, perhaps understand ourselves, better. This ancient ritual requires that we borrow, for the duration of a performance, someone else’s look, voice, accent and at times even gender.
But when we are no longer allowed to step into someone else’s shoes, when it is forbidden to identify with someone else, theatre is denied its very nature, it is prevented from performing its primary function and is thus rendered meaningless.
Over the course of my career, I have devoted entire shows denouncing injustices done throughout history to specific cultural groups, without actors from said groups.
These shows have been performed all over the world, in front of very diverse audiences, without anyone accusing me of cultural appropriation, let alone of racism. Quite the contrary. These projects have always been very well received and have contributed to make Ex Machina one of the most respected theatre companies in the world.

Applying sensibilities of cultural appropriation to art is dangerous to its flourishing, especially in the literary and performance arts — it sabotages the project of empathy-building by making verboten the practice of immersion into identities remote to one’s own. To forbid an actor from representing someone of a different background would be akin to forcing an author to write using only his limited personal experiences for reference, even if he has studied relevant material at length. Who would dare firewall a reader from visualizing herself in the role of a protagonist who doesn’t share her lived experiences to exactitude? Reading fiction has been shown to yield increases in empathy, and conjecture of that effect extending to actors stepping into the skins of their subjects wouldn’t be far-fetched, if authentic source material were in play. Banning cultural appropriation would not only be near-impossible on a practical level, but catastrophic for the arts and counterproductive to the project of achieving understanding of marginalized voices — the very concerns brought to the fore by those censuring SLĀV.

“Banning cultural appropriation would not only be near-impossible on a practical level, but catastrophic for the arts and counterproductive to the project of achieving understanding of marginalized voices.”

Robert Lepage and the team of SLĀV stated they were expecting controversy, and were perhaps inviting it, with their casting decisions, looking to coax courage out of the audience. This is in keeping with Lepage’s historically intrepid and envelope-pushing methods — but it is clear he was not counting on so extreme a reaction to controversy, those decisions ultimately resulting in self-sabotage. While demonising the team for racism is gratuitous and inaccurate, it can be argued that a less esoteric approach to casting would have served better for the longevity of SLĀV, essentially a stillbirth. Additionally, when it comes to authenticity and respect for it, best practice would have been to consult with sources closest to the subject matter, on Charmaine Nelson’s recommendation — it would have at the very least dispelled suspicions of insincerity on the part of the SLĀV team. The caveat, however, is that accusations of cultural appropriation remain casuistic upon close inspection of its implications.
Those decrying cultural appropriation cannot simultaneously sing the praises of multiculturalism with any logical consistency — the inevitable terminus of policing cultural appropriation is segregation, with each individual locked into playing out an amorphous, arbitrary concept of one’s culture corresponding to an inalienable personal background. That accusations of cultural appropriation apply so inconsistently is a hallmark of spuriousness, and makes obvious the following: culture is appropriation, and “cultural appropriation” as a neologism is a misnomer for cultural exchange — no matter how clumsily undertaken. It is best to err on the side of freedom when evaluating the practices, merits, and shortfalls of cultural exchange, as the alternatives amount to endorsing notions of thought-crime, and attempted murder of the arts.

Philip Theofanos is an alumnus of Concordia University's Linguistics program and a fledgling essayist based out of Montreal.

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