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Mark Shenton: Theatre must navigate the choppy waters of cultural change

Robert Lepage. Photo: Jocelyn Michel Robert Lepage. Photo: Jocelyn Michel
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Theatremakers and critics are being forced to chart challenging cultural waters, alert to new sensitivities that their work and words may provoke. Twice in the past month, Robert Lepage, one of the world’s most significant theatremakers, has found his process called into question, leading to the cancellation of his two most recent projects.

The Montreal International Jazz Festival cancelled his show Slav after two performances, following accusations of cultural appropriation. Billed as “a theatrical odyssey based on slave songs”, the production’s cast was mostly white, dressed as cotton pickers and field workers who sang African American slave songs, led by white, French-born singer Betty Bonifassi.

Singer-songwriter Moses Sumney withdrew from the festival, stating: “I don’t think Betty Bonifassi, Robert Lepage or MTL Jazz Fest are authorities on race. I don’t even think I am an authority on race, and I’m an African American with a second degree in African American studies. To tell us why it is okay for white people to take slave songs and repurpose them as they see fit is to imply… that you know better than us about our own pain and culture and history.”

Responding, Lepage outlined his understanding of theatre: “It requires that we borrow, for the duration of a performance, someone else’s look, voice, accent and at times even gender. When we are no longer allowed to step into someone else’s shoes and it is forbidden to identify with someone else, theatre is denied its very nature. It is prevented from performing its primary function and is rendered meaningless.”

Soon after, a debate also ignited around the director’s new play Kanata, due to premiere in Paris in December. Intended to explore the relationship between indigenous people and Canada’s colonisers, it was to be staged with no involvement from indigenous people themselves.

As Steve Bonspiel, editor and publisher of The Eastern Door, put it: “We as indigenous people have a voice. One that Lepage needs to learn from and never dismiss… Artistic licence is one thing, but continuing to steal what little we have left; to treat us like we are part of history only: that has to stop.”

The show’s North American co-producers withdrew funding in the wake of the controversy and Lepage cancelled the show. His company issued a statement saying: “Sooner or later we will need to try to understand what cultural appropriation and the right to free artistic expression fundamentally are.”

Theatremakers regularly tell stories that are not their own; but they must be careful not to dismiss the claims of those more directly involved

An important principle has been raised. Theatremakers regularly tell stories that are not their own; but they must be careful not to dismiss the claims of those more directly involved in the name of artistic freedom.

Or, as a piece in Canada’s National Observer put it: “Imagine wanting to tell the story of Dave and Mary on stage and insisting on only interviewing Dave. How accurate and complete would your final story be? Now imagine that Dave enjoyed generous financial support and public support, while Mary had been silenced for years. When Mary attempts to add her voice to a story that is equally supposed to be about her, she’s not only told her input isn’t required, but any criticism of the fact that her input is lacking is decried as censorship and an attack on artistic freedom. Is it so hard for people to understand why Mary might be a little irate?”

Similar questions about representation are also being raised in ways unrelated to race.

In a Guardian interview, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child director John Tiffany spoke of the intense friendship between Harry’s son Albus and Malfoy’s son Scorpius, which fan communities have accused of being ‘queerbaiting’ – narrative properties that imply a same-sex relationship without explicitly addressing sexuality. He said: “It is a love story between Scorpius and Albus, but that does not mean it’s sexual. I suppose the whole queerbaiting thing is just people saying ‘I want explicit representation’. But also that would become the story.”

Critics are also finding themselves part of that story, when they make over-casual remarks that are insensitive to these shifting sensitivities.

In his New York Times review of Head over Heels on Broadway, a musical which features Peppermint, Broadway’s first transgender woman in a lead role, Ben Brantley referred her character as “nonbinary plural”, and said that the King’s viceroy in the show finds himself “strangely drawn to her – I mean them”.

In response to public criticism of this, the review was amended, with Brantley saying: “I feel horrible for having offended transgender and nonbinary communities. I was trying to reflect the light tone of the show, as well as a plot point in which one character learns to acknowledge another not as ‘she’ but as ‘they’.”

It is clearly a minefield on both sides of the creative fence. If a few are detonated along the way, so be it: we all need to live and learn. I know I have stepped on a few in my time.

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