POLITICS

Montreal theatre's use of blackface criticized in some quarters

01/15/2015 06:00 EST | Updated 03/17/2015 05:59 EDT
MONTREAL - A Montreal theatre's use of blackface in a year-end skit has raised the ire of local artists and community groups who say it is time to be done with the controversial practice.

A white actor donned black facepaint to portray the Montreal Canadiens' P. K. Subban in a show that recently ended at the Theatre du Rideau Vert.

Earlier this week, more than 100 Quebec artists, theatres and cultural organizations sent an open letter to the theatre criticizing its use of blackface, which they said plays a role in "maintaining destructive stereotypes."

"It's not about denouncing anyone as racist, but rather denouncing the use of a practice with a racist connotation, independent of what the author intended," said the letter, sent by local group Diversite artistique Montreal.

Blackface emerged during American minstrel shows in the 1800s, during which white actors painted their faces to portray stereotypical black characters.

In an interview with Montreal La Presse published Wednesday, the theatre's artistic director, Denise Filiatrault, said she was "shocked and humiliated" by the criticism and added the skit didn't constitute blackface.

''Listen, it wasn't a blackface,'' Filiatrault told the newspaper. ''I never believed all this would happen. Everyone knows me. I'm 83 years old. I've had a 60-year career. I was the first person to hire a black person on TV (Normand Brathwaite). As soon as I have the chance, I hire them because they're bursting with talent.''

Quincy Armorer, artistic director at the Black Theatre Workshop and one of the letter's signatories, said the letter was aimed at starting a conversation about blackface, how it is used and why some communities find it offensive.

"There seems to be perhaps a lack of understanding of the connotations of what it means, and a lack of understanding of why black people in particular, and the greater community in general, take offence to it," Armorer told The Canadian Press.

"Many of us...feel it is time for blackface to stop appearing on our stages. This letter is a call to any organization that continues to use this practice, which is deemed racist and offensive by many individuals and many communities."

Some critics of the performance have argued the theatre should have hired a black actor to play the role.

Filiatrault responded that doing so was financially impossible because the skit lasted only 12 seconds.

''Do you think I would have hired a black person for 12 seconds? We don't have the means. We don't get any subsidies. They're minimal.''

Subban has not yet commented on the controversy. The Canadiens have been on the road since the brouhaha erupted.

Theatre du Rideau Vert was founded in 1948 and bills itself as the oldest francophone theatre in North America.