News and Commentary

‘Dirty Racists’: Musical Canceled After Intense Backlash Over White Actors Playing Slaves

Amid intense backlash from outraged critics and activists that left producers “shaken,” a musical directed by an acclaimed French-Canadian gay director was shut down on Wednesday despite having sold thousands of tickets and having over a dozen performances still scheduled. The source of the outrage: The director had cast white women to play many of the black slaves.

The musical, “Slav,” premiered at the Montreal International Jazz Festival last week, but by Wednesday the “storm proved too much,” the New York Times’ Dan Bilefsky writes. The play, which was inspired by “traditional African-American slave and work songs,” featured “a nearly all-white cast,” including star Betty Bonifassi, notes Bilefsky.

All that “whiteness” at the direction of the white director, Robert Lepage, earned the ire of critics who decried the production as a “white supremacist” appropriation of black culture. Bilefsky reports:

“This kind of black imitation is very reminiscent of blackface minstrel shows,” singer-songwriter Moses Sumney wrote in a letter to the festival, explaining his decision to withdraw from it. “The only thing missing is black paint.”

At the show’s premiere last week, protesters heckled, jeered and blocked theatergoers, mostly older and white, as they tried to enter the performance at the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde in downtown Montreal. The protesters chanted “Shame! Shame! Shame!” “Dirty racists!” “White supremacists!” Police cleared the way for the audience.

One black protester held up a sign: “Is there nothing y’all won’t steal? White culture is theft.” A black protester said a female theatergoer had slapped her in the face.

Some tried to defend the production, including a few black artists, who noted that requiring racial purity for roles is a very slippery slope. How many productions celebrating minority cultures would never have seen the light of day if such racial identity requirements had been imposed? Bilefsky cites a Facebook post by black actor Frédéric Pierre summing up the defense: “Leave the artists in peace, let the white artists be touched and moved by black history and the songs it generated.”

Lepage and Bonifassi initially defended the production. “Yes, the history of slavery, in all its various forms, belongs first and foremost to those who have been oppressed and to the descendants of those people,” they wrote in a joint statement last week. “But this history was written by the oppressors as much as by the oppressed, by whites as well as by blacks. And it’s necessary to continue the dialogue about this difficult period, first to bear witness, but also to avoid repeating it in the future.”

But the “shaken” producers and festival organizers ultimately caved to the pressure and the “cultural appropriation” argument, as it has increasingly in the arts and academia successfully shut down this ill-fated attempt at “continu[ing] the dialogue.”