Robert Lepage commits to changes as controversial SLĀV musical returns to stage

Since last June, when the Montreal International Jazz Festival cancelled the production, the content of SLAV has been reworked and rewritten, Lepage said.

Show based on slave songs with mostly white cast was criticized for cultural appropriation

SLĀV is returning to the stage in Quebec with significant changes, director Robert Lepage says. (Christian Côté/Radio-Canada)

Months after the Montreal International Jazz Festival cancelled a controversial production about slavery, the musical is returning to the stage — and its director says there will be significant changes.

In a lengthy statement from his production company Ex Machina, Robert Lepage said that after meeting with an activist group that protested SLĀV, structural changes were made to better represent people of colour within the company. 

The festival cancelled SLĀV, a musical performance based on American slave songs, following a brief run after it was criticized for its lack of sensitivity and mainly white cast. The controversy led to public debates about freedom of expression and cultural appropriation.

"No matter what side you took in the debate about SLĀV, you have to admit it at least prompted some long-needed reflection in the province of Quebec," Lepage wrote in the statement.

The content of SLĀV has been reworked and rewritten since last June, Lepage added. 

The musical has not been performed since its cancellation last summer, but has upcoming dates booked in the Quebec cities of Sherbrooke, Saint-Jérôme, Drummondville and Saguenay. 

Moving forward, Lepage said he would invite a member of the SLĀV Resistance Collective to attend the show's rehearsals and offer them "time to exchange with the public and artists following certain performances."

He also said internal changes would be made within Ex Machina to better represent people of African descent as he moves forward with a multimillion-dollar complex in Quebec City, Le Diamant, which will house his production company and serve as a venue and incubator for theatre arts. 

"Of course, these commitments won't make everyone happy, but … they seem to be several steps in the right direction of coming together to dialogue calmly across all the noise," Lepage wrote.

Turning point for Quebec society, activist says

A four-hour meeting between Lepage and the SLĀV Resistance Collective took place at the beginning of November, according to protest organizer and Montreal-based artist Lucas Charlie Rose.

He said meeting with Lepage was a fruitful and positive experience — but that he isn't sure if SLĀV returning to the stage so soon is a good idea.

"I feel like this is the type of project that should just go back to the drawing board, and really be rethought from the beginning," Rose said.

The meeting with Robert Lepage was at the beginning of November and lasted four hours, according to key protest organizer and black, trans hip-hop artist Lucas Charlie Rose. (Submitted by Lucas Charlie Rose)

He said he remains a bit skeptical for now, as he doesn't know what the changes will be made to the controversial play.

Lepage chose to opt out of the conversation for some time last summer, said Rose, which led to escalating tensions and some threats against the activists who criticized SLĀV, including Rose.

But Rose said the protests were worth it; he believes this is a turning point for Quebec society.

"I think great things are going to come from the fact that this conversation is happening," Rose said.


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