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No promises to change 'Kanata' after Robert Lepage meets with show's opponents

Last Updated Jul 20, 2018 at 4:40 pm EDT

MONTREAL – A meeting between Quebec director Robert Lepage and a group of activists who are concerned with a lack of Indigenous representation in his upcoming stage show ended without a concrete promise to change the cast, according to several people who attended.

Lepage and Paris theatre director Ariane Mnouchkine met for nearly six hours with more than 30 members of the Indigenous community who had signed an open letter in Le Devoir last week denouncing the production “Kanata,” which will be performed in Paris by a French acting group in December.

According to a description on the theatre’s website, “Kanata” will explore Canada’s history “through the lens of the relationship between white and Aboriginal Peoples,” but won’t feature any Indigenous actors.

Nakuset, the executive director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, said the nearly six-hour meeting ended without a commitment from Lepage to revisit the show’s casting.

She said talking to Lepage was “like speaking to a wall.”

“It didn’t go well, it didn’t go the way we wanted it to go, and it just didn’t seem we were really being listened to,” said Nakuset, who uses only one name.

The controversy comes shortly after a run of Lepage’s play “SLAV” was cancelled in Montreal amid accusations of racial insensitivity because it featured a mostly-white cast singing slave songs.

Nakuset said it appears a similar approach is being taken with “Kanata.”

“They feel any actor can portray any race, they don’t have to be from that race,” she said.

She said failing to hire Indigenous actors and musicians is a disservice to both the Indigenous community and people who attend the show, who will be denied an authentic experience.

“Had they hired at least one Indigenous actor, that would have been my success. I didn’t walk away with that,” she said.

Instead, the only thing Lepage agreed to is another meeting.

Nakuset said she left early, and went home and cried.

But Andre Dudemaine, who directs the Montreal First People’s Festival, saw the gathering in a more positive light.

Despite the fact that Lepage and Mnuchkine would not agree to change to the cast, he believes the two parties now understand each other better.

“We were talking to each other from opposite riverbanks, but by the end it seemed the river had narrowed a little and we were hearing each other a bit better,” he said, adding the two parties could work together in the future.

“All the disagreements haven’t been solved, we’re not there yet, but the dialogue has been established and everyone wants to pursue it.”

In a brief statement, Lepage and Mnouchkine thanked the group for listening to them “with attention and goodwill,” and acknowledged that not everything was resolved.

— With files from Magdaline Boutros