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There was applause and cheering outside Montreal’s Théâtre du Nouveau Monde (TNM) on Tuesday evening, though not for the Robert Lepage-directed show about to begin inside. The cheering was for speakers who denounced Lepage and singer Betty Bonifassi, both of whom are white, as “racists,” for presenting a program of songs that originated among blacks in the American South.

A war of words over SLĀV that has been heating up since last November spilled over into the streets of Montreal on Tuesday.

Robert Everett-Green/Globe and Mail

About 100 people assembled on St. Catherine Street to hear speeches and songs against SLĀV, which is part of the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. After about 45 minutes of invective from a number of speakers, including organizer Lucas Charlie Rose, the protestors surged toward the theatre entrance and its crowded restaurant terrasse, chanting “Shut it down!” and “Shame!”

Lepage, Bonifassi and the jazz festival were accused of “profiting from our pain” and fuelling exploitative capitalism, although both the festival and TNM are not-for-profit entities. The protest channeled frustrations not only about what one speaker called “a blatant act of neo-colonialism,” but also about a lack of opportunity for black artists and police violence against black people.

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SLĀV is billed as “a theatrical odyssey inspired by and focused on traditional African-American slave and work songs, from cotton-field plantation to railroad yards.” The initial plan was for five shows, but after those quickly sold out, the run was extended to 16 performances through July 14.

Bonifassi is best known for her soundtrack performance in the 2003 Oscar-nominated film The Triplets of Belleville and as the powerhouse vocalist for a popular Montreal band led by DJ Champion (Maxime Morin). Her collaboration with Lepage grew out of two albums of her interpretations of songs collected in southern black communities during the 1930s, by white ethnomusicologists John and Alan Lomax.

A war of words over SLĀV has been heating up since last November, when dramaturge and activist Marilou Craft criticized the whiteness of the production in a Facebook post. Bonifassi responded with a defence of her right to tell slave stories, based on her own heritage. “’Slave’ comes from the word ‘Slav,’” she wrote. “The first people sold were from Slavic countries east of my mother’s country of Serbia.” She also wrote that she had spent 18 years researching the material for SLĀV.

Earlier this week, the singer told the Montreal Gazette: “I waited a long time to find the right way to make this work. I don’t see colour. To me, it doesn’t exist, physically or in music. … All cultures and ethnicities suffer the same.”

Several speakers at Tuesday’s demonstration called Bonifassi’s professed colour-blindness an insult to those descended from enslaved blacks. “They’re not allowing us to tell our own stories,” said a speaker who identified themself as Vincent, a black, queer, trans student.

The demonstrators benefited from the fact that the theatre is on a stretch of St. Catherine Street that is closed for the summer to vehicle traffic. A protest confined to the sidewalk, competing with traffic noise, might have been much less effective.

In a joint prepared statement released after the demonstration, Lepage and Bonfassi said: “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. … Diversity and its artistic potential are at the heart of SLĀV as much as the legacy of slavery. Do we have the right to tell these stories? Audience members will have the opportunity to decide after having seen the show.”

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The audience for Tuesday’s sold-out opening performance filed into the theatre behind a police line, while protestors shouted at them.

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