A musical about slavery featuring a largely white cast has been pulled from a festival after accusations of cultural appropriation.
SLAV – billed as “a theatrical odyssey based on slave songs” – was cancelled by Montreal International Jazz Festival following protests.
The festival said it made the decision with the agreement of the show’s lead singer, French-born Betty Bonifassi.
The show promoted itself as “exploring many eras of black music including slave songs, work songs, railroad songs, field songs, prisoners’ songs, laments and lullabies”.
Critics highlighted the largely white casting, with a white lead singer and six choristers, only two of whom are black. The show also has a white director, Canadian Robert Lepage.
Oscar nominated Bonifassi previously defended the show, telling the Montreal Gazette: “I don’t see colour, to me it doesn’t exist…
“People talk about whites taking black songs. Uniting two colours is modern. We don’t talk about black and white in the show. We talk about human pain, experienced together. All cultures and ethnicities suffer the same.”
The actress, who had missed several performances due to a broken ankle, confirmed the cancellation on Facebook and said she would “speak about the music I played and designed for the show as soon as I can physically”.
Lepage and Bonifassi had previously released a joint statement on Facebook acknowledging the controversy the show was causing, but arguing that “history was written by the oppressors as much as by the oppressed, by whites as well as by blacks”.
Outside of the festival, Bonifassi has been performing African-American slave songs around the world for years.
American singer-songwriter Moses Sumney, who has performed with the likes of Solange and Erykah Badu, pulled out of his sold-out show at the festival due to what he described as their “endorsement” of the show.
The 28-year-old African American artist published an open letter to the organisers, comparing the show to “blackface minstrel shows” and claiming the mostly white cast and production team were appropriating slavery songs to make money by performing to a largely white audience.
In his letter, he concluded: “There is no context in which white people performing black slave songs is okay… Especially not while they are directed by a white director and in a theater charging loads of money. This kind of black imitation is very reminiscent of blackface minstrel shows. The only thing missing is black paint.”
Apologising to “all those who were hurt” in a statement posted on Facebook, the festival team said they had been “shaken and strongly affected by all comments received”.