MONTREAL — For Robert Lepage, the unrivalled superstar of Quebec theatre, this has been a summer to forget. Accustomed to international acclaim, Lepage has spent the past month under fire for two productions that address the oppression of African-Americans and Indigenous people, respectively, with few or no actors from those groups.
On Thursday, Lepage’s production company Ex Machina announced that Kanata, a play examining relations between whites and Indigenous people but with no Indigenous cast members, has been cancelled.
The Ex Machina statement said unnamed co-producers withdrew their financial support for the play — more than two years in the making and set to open in Paris in December — as a result of “the infinitely complex and often aggressive controversy surrounding the show.”
The announcement follows the cancellation earlier this month of Lepage’s SLAV, a musical at the Montreal International Jazz Festival based on slave songs with a white star and a predominantly white cast.
The back-to-back cancellations have brought the debate over cultural appropriation to Quebec with a vengeance. As he did when SLAV was met with protests from Quebec artists of colour, Lepage has expressed bewilderment over the negative reaction to Kanata from Indigenous groups.
“I really did not expect to face such anger,” he told Radio-Canada last Saturday in his only interview on the controversy. He likened the reaction to an out-of-control forest fire.
For Margo Kane, artistic managing director of Vancouver’s Full Circle First Nations theatre company, it is a fire that Lepage lit.
She was invited to advise Lepage when he and the French theatre company set to perform Kanata visited Vancouver on a 2016 research trip.
She said she advised Lepage to shelve the project after sitting in as the Kanata team interviewed people familiar with the city’s Downtown Eastside, an Indigenous woman in recovery who had been living on the streets and a former police officer.
“I basically said, ‘Don’t do it,’ ” Kane said in an interview Thursday.
“I said, ‘No, it’s coming through your eyes. Where are the Indigenous voices and perspectives in this piece? We are really tired of people telling our story for us.’
“I just could feel that there was no real listening, no real understanding. They had made up their mind and that was that.”
Today, Lepage is paying the price. Kane’s voice was not the only one warning Lepage that the project was problematic. The French cultural website Arrêt sur images reported Thursday that the production was refused funding by the Canada Council for the Arts in 2016. An Ex Machina spokesman told Radio-Canada that the Council had sought more information about Indigenous people consulted during the play’s creation.
Kane is at least the fourth Indigenous artist consulted by Lepage to distance herself from Kanata. She took offence when her name was invoked last week as evidence Lepage and the French theatre company had consulted First Nations members.
“You’re just using our names to put a stamp on it that you did your due diligence,” she said. “They didn’t do their due diligence.”
The debate over Kanata came to a head on July 14 when a group of Indigenous artists from Quebec signed an open letter in Montreal’s Le Devoir accusing Lepage and Ariane Mnouchkine of Paris’s Théâtre du Soleil of rendering Indigenous people invisible.
Lepage met with his critics last week, but he refused to budge on their request for Indigenous participation in the play, arguing that the production is too far along. “We are unable to change, and that bothers them,” he told Radio-Canada.
The signatories of the July 14 letter issued a short statement Thursday saying they were saddened that Lepage had cancelled Kanata. “In no way did we believe that this conclusion was a solution to the lack of collaboration observed,” they wrote.
Some here are portraying the cancellation as an assault on artistic freedom. Parti Québécois leader Jean-François Lisée urged the provincial Liberal government to step in with funding to save the show.
“This setback for artistic freedom is intolerable,” he said on Twitter, blaming “pressure from censors” and the “moral weakness of co-producers” for the cancellation.
Quebec Culture Minister Marie Montpetit called the cancellation unfortunate. “Nobody wins, neither the creators, the First Nations nor the public. … It’s a missed opportunity to discover the work of a great Quebec creator and also a missed opportunity to talk about Indigenous culture,” she said in a statement.
Lepage said the stages of his theatre Le Diamant, under construction in Quebec City, will be open to Indigenous artists. “Beyond this troubling situation, sooner or later we will need to try to understand — calmly and together — what cultural appropriation and the right to free artistic expression fundamentally are,” the Ex Machina statement said.
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