A Social-Justice Mob Takes Montreal


Betty Bonifassi

has spent 18 years researching, reworking and performing slave songs. In “SLĀV,” the hit new play on the same topic, she is the lead singer—or was. The Montreal International Jazz Festival canceled “SLĀV” on Wednesday: “We would like to apologize to those who were hurt.” Why the pain? Because Ms. Bonifassi and director

Robert Lepage

are white. Two of the seven cast members were black, but they won’t be performing either.

“SLĀV” sold out its first five shows and was booked for 11 more at Montreal’s Théâtre du Nouveau Monde. It also received glowing reviews in the Quebecois press. One critic wrote that the show reminds him of the “need to overcome” and makes him feel “ashamed” of his own “insane non-activism.” A writer at Le Journal de Montréal credits it with “demonstrating the absurdity of racism.”

Ms. Bonifassi, whose mother is Serbian and who sings the play’s first slave songs in Bulgarian, has said that because of her own heritage, she feels “touched by slavery.” “SLĀV” makes its way from the Balkans through Ireland and Quebec before reaching the U.S., where it not only confronts slavery but depicts a present-day black American jogger arrested for no reason.

Some 100 people showed up to protest the play before one of its performances. They complained that Ms. Bonifassi was “not allowing us to tell our own stories” and “profiting from our pain.” One speaker called the show “a blatant act of neocolonialism.” An American singer,

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Moses Sumney,

canceled a performance at the Jazz Festival, calling “SLĀV”—which he didn’t trouble himself to see—“hegemonic, appropriative, and neo-imperialistic” in a letter to the festival’s organizers.

Ms. Bonifassi and Mr. Lepage responded to the protests with a measured statement. “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,” they concede. “Do we have the right to tell these stories?” they ask. “Audience members will have the opportunity to decide after having seen the show.” But the social-justice mob saw to it that they wouldn’t.

No one has even implied that “SLĀV” misconstrued the history of slavery or treated the subject matter too lightly. But the social-justice mob smelled blood, and the jazz festival panicked at the threat of bad publicity. That’s how a few dozen Canadian philistines deprived their neighbors of an opportunity to appreciate the wrenching and challenging songs of slaves. Why did they do it? As Prime Minister

Justin Trudeau

might say, because it’s 2018.

Mr. Kaufman is a Robert L. Bartley Fellow at the Journal.

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