Montreal Jazz Festival Cancels Slave Songs Show After Backlash

Courtesy of Montreal Jazz Fest

'SLAV' faced protests over a live stage show performed by a largely white cast dressed as African-American cotton pickers and field workers.

The Montreal International Jazz Festival has canceled a controversial stage show, SLAV, that features African-American slave songs performed by a largely white cast dressed as cotton pickers and field workers.

"For the Festival international de Jazz de Montreal, inclusion and reconciliation between communities is essential," the festival said in a statement on Wednesday. "We made the decision with the artist Betty Bonifassi to cancel all performances of the show at the festival."

SLAV — produced by veteran stage and film director Robert Lepage and sung by Bonifassi and six other performers — was previously billed as a "theatrical odyssey based on slave songs." Bonifassi, a Montreal-based singer, is best known for her Oscar-nominated work on the soundtrack for Les Triplettes de Belleville, which included a performance at the 2004 Academy Awards.

The world premiere of SLAV on June 26 at the Theatre du Nouveau Monde in Montreal was upstaged by a street protest over a stage show about slave songs being performed by a mainly white cast. SLAV director Lepage said Friday in a statement that the cancellation of his slave songs show was a "blow to artistic freedom."

Writing on the Facebook page for his Ex Machina production shingle, Lepage added that live theater requires performers to step into other peoples' shoes for drama. "When it is forbidden to identify with someone else, theater is denied its very nature, it is prevented from performing its primary function and is thus rendered meaningless," he wrote. 

American singer-songwriter Moses Sumney earlier on Tuesday canceled his own performance at the prestigious Montreal jazz festival over the SLAV controversy.

"There's nothing wrong with white people wanting to make work about slavery. The way it is executed in this show, however, is appropriative, hegemonic and neo-imperialistic. (At $60-$90 tickets… I much would have preferred seeing actual black Americans sing their own slave songs.)," Sumney wrote on his Tumblr page.

Montreal's annual jazz festival is a 10-day affair that offers both free outdoor shows and indoor ticketed events that feature rock, blues and world music. This year's event includes performances by Seal, Bobby McFerrin, Leslie Odom Jr., Charlotte Gainsbourg and Ziggy Marley.

The festival in its statement said it "has been shaken and strongly affected by all comments received" and promised refunds to ticket holders impacted by the cancellations of remaining shows.

July 6, 8:30 a.m. Updated with a statement issued by SLAV director Robert Lepage on his production company's Facebook page.

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