Slav – Should The Story Be Told?

SLAV - Montreal Jazz Festival

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Slav – Robert Lepage + Betty Bonifassi + Ex Machina

SLAV - Montreal Jazz Festival
SLAV – Montreal Jazz Festival

I can’t help but notice, as I walk out of the theatre after the performance, is that a vast majority of the attendance is white.  In terms of percentages, we are talking extremely high nineties.  This reflects the high percentage among the performers tonight as well.  Although I will admit, there is a high possibility that Betty Bonifassi is hiding a soulful black woman within her.

The topic of the performance, a mixture of song and video projection within a play tells the story of Slavery from its origins to the modern day.  I am reminded of the Freedom Singer performance given by Khari Wendell McClelland on the same topic. While his story was closer to home, from the point of view of his great great great grandmother, tonight was told with a more general overview of this dark period in history.

The narration is in French and the songs are sung in English with subtitles for lyrics, as well as one song sung in Creole.  The songs were delivered either in a traditional way or modernized.  There are even some African slave dance moves taught at the end of the show.  The show was informative, linked Irish slaves into the story and explained very well the Underground Railway.

When I heard, just a few minutes ago, that there was a protest during the soft opening last night, I wasn’t surprised.  It validated the strange feeling I had while watching the performance.

On the Ex Machina Facebook Page, Robert Lepage, Betty Bonifassi and Ex Machina defend their choice:  “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. But this history was written by the oppressors as much as by the oppressed, by whites as well as by blacks.”

If I focus on the performance itself, it does educate and make a commentary on how slavery still exists in our day in various forms.  In the garment industry, conditions can be compared to slavery in some ways.  It also brings to light the plight of African Americans and their being singled out as guilty until proven innocent by the police.

Apart from a few minor technical glitches, mostly with the projected lyrics, the show had great production value.  There is a scene during one of the songs where Betty is singing and the projection is of the slaves actors hiding on the side of the tracks and jumping into its cargo hold to escape, only to jump off at the end, in slow motion, hopefully to freedom.

Probably the most recognizable song was “Black Betty”, but not the Ram Jam version.

“Do we have the right to tell these stories?” Robert, Betty and Ex Machina ask.

There is no question that the story needs to be told.  It’s easy to say now:  “I would never own a slave.”  But that’s just what everyone else did around them in that era.

What about us?  Do we bend our own rules because society in general views something as acceptable? Just because everyone is doing something, doesn’t make it right.  Then again…maybe we are just stuck with beliefs that are passed down from generations and never questioned.

Where the lines between good and evil are blurred just about as much as can be, out comes the #MeToo movement.  Sometimes, we need to expose the darkness so it can be hit by the light.

Tonight, the story is one that needs to be told.  White people need to hear it.  More than that, it needs to be remembered so that it never happens again.

As Canadians, the Underground Railway is part of our heritage, as Canada was the so-called promised land.

During the standing ovation, Betty Bonifassi is clearly emotional.  Betty, an artist that says she doesn’t see people based on their colour, is clearly relieved.  As tears well up in her eyes, she did what she set out to do…share a story, a powerful story told with respect and sometimes even a little humour to defuse the tension.

Did Slav have the right to tell the story?

I believe anyone who brings this story to light is worthy of praise.  But I do believe that my strange feeling would have been alieved if the show included more performers whose ancestors were directly affected by the subject.

That strange feeling is also there because of money.  Telling the story is one thing, but making money off the story is a whole different beast.

I can cook up a mean Lasagna, but nothing will compare with an Italian grandmother’s version of the same dish.  For her, it’s not just a meal, it’s history on a plate.

Slav could have done the same and honored the story with actors/singers who had a blood relation to the victims of this history. Time will tell if they made the right choice.

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