Not my theatre
by Mike Payette
December 19, 2014
Last night, my friend/colleague and I went to see Théâtre du Rideau Vert’s annual offering of Revue et Corrigée which “parodies” Québec-centric politics, figure heads, celebrities, media, displayed through a mix of both live performance and video sketches. I went. I knew why I was going. I had gone because in one sketch, it was told, featured one of the performers “aping” PK Subban with Habs uniform and blackface.
I had gone because there was apparent backlash from this through various media outlets, and suddenly the theatre company I work at was being forced to make a statement of sorts. My colleague – with good reason – believed in order to make any statement, we should see it. He was right. But I was flooding through every excuse in my brain as to how I could bail, knowing that I was going to walk into something I wasn’t sure of how I would absorb. Why deliberately put yourself through that? Am I supporting by being a bum in seat – making the theatre look even fuller? Why? I had already read the Montreal Gazette’s article, I had read le Voir’s article…
In front of the theatre, there were buses, BUSES of people seeing this show.
When we got there, I knew we were being deliberate, that we were being investigative. In my heart, I really just didn’t want to see what everyone was talking about. I really just didn’t want to be there.
Not because I would be surprised. But because…I wouldn’t be surprised. The two of us were the only people of colour in the 400+ seat theatre. The theatre did not intend on including us.
At the top of the second act, after the Ginette Reno spoof, on the big screen, two actors appeared: both White performers dressed in Habs gear sitting on a locker room bench, one in full blackface to portray PK Subban. When the 45-second sketch was done, my friend and I removed ourselves from the theatre.
I’m confused. Taken aback, hurt. I feel deep shame and anger. I am an alien within my geographic community and I embody the knowledge of not belonging to an arts landscape that is in my own stomping grounds. Where I live, where I work, where I walk every day.
I will not be naïve and pretend that this has not been an issue in the Québec franco-theatre community for a while in terms of content and hiring practice. It has. It trickles into the English side too. The thing I’m frightened of is that in doing this, in an arena of expression, freedom of speech, etc, they were NOT deliberate. Rideau Vert was not trying to be political or make a statement or anything that could suggest a modicum of thought. What’s worse is that this was a non-issue for them. They were surprised that they received backlash. By demonstrating laziness in their work, they were overtly smug, arrogant and entirely racist.
This show opened on November 25th, there was an article released a week later denoting the inappropriate and highly offensive material – may I remind you that there were BUSES – and others followed. But rather than Rideau Vert taking this into consideration, they decided to keep the video sketch in. That was their response and their choice – after four weeks of this. It has been extended to January 10th.
However, I can’t be the one to “get over this” anymore, or to think that I’m being too sensitive. Because when I start to think these things, people and theatres like Rideau Vert get another notch on their belt for not having to deal with the consequences of their words and work.
As arts practitioners, we have control over what messages, stories, thoughts, people, faces, psychologies, ideals, philosophies we wish our audiences to take from our work. We are active in that. We must be. We cannot be complacent, nor can we accept absolute intolerance or ignorance. It is a bad excuse; it is only inhumane, filthy, oppressive, and unabashedly unsympathetic.
I know that I am not welcome in their theatre. That is the clearest message they sent to me.
Mike Payette is a Montréal-based actor and director and has worked on some of Canada’s greatest stages from coast to coast. He is co-founder and Artistic Director of Tableau D’Hôte Theatre, Assistant Artistic Director of Black Theatre Workshop and a founding member of Metachroma Theatre.