SLĀV: A Year of Noise and Silence

Quebec, December 28, 2018 – No matter what side you took in the debate about SLĀV, you have to admit that it at least prompted some long-needed reflection in the province of Quebec. Unfortunately, as it often happens here in Quebec, important social debates sometimes end up leading to a situation where everyone’s talking and nobody’s listening. The discourse gets muddied, becoming just a heap of ideas and opinions overrun by noise and confusion.

Over the last year, people have criticized me often for not having spoken out enough on the subject and especially for not having played the media’s game. But in order to express an opinion, I needed to be able to articulate it. Even now, I have to admit that though my opinion has evolved, my position is far from being clear. That’s why I felt it was wiser to stay quiet instead of adding my voice to the cacophony.

The length of an interview on a television newscast or radio show seemed insufficient to tackle a sensitive subject like cultural appropriation, which, in the case of SLĀV, is tied to equally complicated issues of minority representation onstage and the decolonization of the arts. Yet I knew that by choosing to keep silent, I was taking a risk that others would speak in my place and that my defenders’ arguments wouldn’t necessarily always align with my opinions.

This debate brought up more questions for me than answers, and I would have liked to have been able to address my critics directly, outside the public arena, without having to pass through the usual arbitration of electronic media and the editorial comments of print media.

Toward the end of autumn, after several months of hesitation and skepticism, I accepted the SLĀV Resistance Collective’s invitation to talk with them in person. Mustering my courage, I made my way to the meeting place they had suggested, fully expecting to get raked over the coals. But, unlike the angry far-left extremists depicted in certain media, the people I met with were welcoming, open, perceptive, intelligent, cultivated, articulate and peaceful. Wrongly warned by several people that I’d probably be meeting with a group of “radical anglophones from Concordia University,” I had prepared all my thoughts in English. When I realized that the majority of them were francophone and that the discussion would mostly be in French, I was destabilized and felt as if I were fumbling for words.

There were about 15 people of African descent at the meeting, including Lucas Charlie Rose and Ricardo Lamour. Most of them were artists or community activists who had come together because of their social responsiveness, which had, over the course of the summer, significantly tested them. Even though their protests had led to our show being pulled from the Festival international de Jazz de Montréal’s programme, their attitude was far from triumphant. Their speaking out had resulted in them being demonized by the general public. Their actions in front of the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde had created a reaction that they hadn’t expected. They shared their experiences of being associated since then with violence that they had never wanted and for which they weren’t responsible. Some of them had even lost their jobs, while others had seen precious collaborations crumble. Continually harassed and insulted by far-right groups, several had even received death threats. And, like me, all of them had lost friends.

Our first realization was as shocking as it was disarming: none of us were like the portraits the media had painted of us. Even with our differences of opinion, meeting each other sooner would have helped us better understand each other as well as avoid a whole lot of conflict.

In this environment of openness and transparency, it was easier for me to acknowledge my clumsiness and misjudgements and to try to explain the merits of our process. It was also equally important to admit that the version of SLĀV that we were presenting last June was far from finished and that perhaps it wasn’t by chance that the show’s dramaturgical problems corresponded exactly to the ethical problems the show was criticized for. If the show had run longer, we surely could have done better, but well…. By the way, I’d like to mention that, since last June, the content of SLĀV has been reworked and rewritten.

During our four-hour discussion—sprinkled with moving statements and numerous bursts of laughter—we listened attentively to each other with mutual respect. We came to the conclusion that although we weren’t going to solve everything related to cultural appropriation, we had opened up a dialogue.

At the end of the meeting, I realized that I was the only one present who had the visibility, power and means to take the first action steps to work toward healing.

To continue deepening our reflection, I felt it was important to commit to certain actions. The first step is to invite a member of the group to come to rehearsals of SLĀV to see the numerous changes before the show is remounted in January. The second is to offer the group a time to exchange with the public and artists following certain performances. The next step is to make internal structural changes within the organization of Ex Machina and to ensure a significant representation of people of African descent from Quebec City in the programming of the future Diamant.

As this new year begins, I resolve to do better. Of course, these commitments won’t make everyone happy, but, even so, they seem to be several steps in the right direction of coming together to dialogue calmly across all the noise.

Robert Lepage

Stage Director

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