Whose story is it anyway?

Several years ago, the Center for Arts in Society launched an initiative to study and document the impact controversy has on the arts. One of the key points made by cultural sociologist and author Richard Howells was that “controversies in the arts are rarely only about the arts.” Instead, Professor Howells notes, what needs to be examined is the “the power dynamic in both the making and the understanding of controversy.”

I invite you to use Professor Howells’s lens to examine the recent controversy currently roiling through the international theater community about the play “SLĀV,” which was billed as a “theatrical odyssey based on slave songs” and featured a predominantly white cast playing enslaved people throughout history. The play was co-created by Canadian playwright and director Robert LaPage and singer Betty Bonifassi, both of whom are white. It premiered at the Montreal Jazz Festival earlier this month. Almost immediately, the production was met with protest – from rapper Lucas Charlie Rose to a group calling itself “SLĀV Resistance,” which presented the signatures of more than 1,500 people accusing Mr. LaPage and Ms. Bonifassi of racial insensitivity, profiting from the music of enslaved black people, and racial imbalance in casting. Following a week of on-and off-stage protests, the festival organizers closed the show.

Less than two weeks later, Mr. LaPage, who is Canada’s best-known director, made the news again, accused of cultural appropriation for his new play, “Kanata,” which is scheduled to open in Paris in December. “Kanata” is about the relationship between the white Canadian settlers and Indigenous Canadians. Although the director consulted with members of the Indigenous community as research for the work, the “Kanata” controversy is similar to the one surrounding “SLĀV’—no Indigenous Canadians are featured in the production and the Indigenous artists say their attempt to give casting input was disregarded.

Since then, Mr. LaPage’s works have been the subject of heated debates in public and online. Some theaters are planning to stage “SLĀV” in protest of what they’re calling “censorship” and “political correctness.” Indigenous Canadian activists demanded and were granted a meeting with Mr. LaPage about “Kanata” but the director declined to commit to recasting the show. The controversy has also spurred other critical questions: Should non-white actors perform Shakespeare? Should Ken Burns make documentaries about jazz? Did Lin-Manuel Miranda have the right to create “Hamilton?” Should film directors follow color-blind casting recommendations?

I believe an opinion piece published by the Montreal Gazette best addresses this issue of power dynamics, which is at the core of this controversy. Written by Quincy Armorer, artistic director of Montreal’s Black Theatre Workshop; Mathieu Murphy-Perron, artistic producer of Tableau D’Hôte Theatre, and PJ Prudat, a Métis actor and writer, the article reads in part: “Artistic depictions of history are essential for healthy and informed communities, but as the recent SLĀV debacle demonstrates, this should not give all artists carte blanche to share these stories in any which way they please….Lepage’s artistic “colour-blindness” is rooted in white privilege and illustrates how he and others are woefully unaware of the colonial lens that encourages white artists to claim Indigenous and racialized stories as their own. It is all the more frustrating that in those rare moments when such stories receive the funding and platform necessary for popular consumption, artists from these communities are absent from the creative process. Not only does this erasure impoverish these artists, it ultimately weakens the stories being told.”

I continue to reflect on the comments made by Ford Foundation President Darren Walker that I first published in a previous blog. Mr. Walker talked about the importance of documenting our legacy so that it can be preserved for future generations. Many important narratives, especially when it comes to the history of People of Color and Indigenous communities around the world, have been omitted and lost. That’s why it’s essential that we are sensitive to and aware of the difference between cultural appropriation and sharing one’s perspective on another people’s culture. It’s important to maintain the integrity of the narrative and to engage and involve the people whose stories are being told throughout the process—in this case, from research to staging. And when it comes to casting stories involving sensitive issues that have been largely ignored and portrayed inaccurately in history books, there must be casting that lends itself to the artist’s voice for authenticity and accuracy. I can only imagine the numbers of artists of color who would leap at the opportunity to tell their story, especially if the resources were available to support the eventual production.

It is my hope that this controversy generates more opportunities for dialogue and understanding, rather than signaling the opening of a new social abyss. Examining our daily lives through the lens of the arts encourages hope and possibilities. But it is critical that we members of the arts community avert tumbling headlong into the cultural quicksand of disregard and disrespect when it comes to People of Color, which has its most recent origin in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and election and has been gaining momentum worldwide since that time. I, for one, am determined to remain a member of the voices of resistance. I hope you will join me and I invite you to share your comments.