Lutèce Diaries, 5: Somber times at Ariane Mnouchkine’s Theatre du Soleil — Robert Lepage’s “Kanata” or Why I won’t review Victim Art without the Victims

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

(While today’s article is in English, all the linked articles are in French. Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation today. Just designate your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. No amount is too small. This one goes out to Polly, and to Lureeta Whitewing-Porter.)

PARIS — I was working as a feature writer for the Anchorage Daily News (a job I’d accepted after watching too many episodes of Northern Exposure; it wasn’t until after arriving in Alaska that I learned the t.v. series was shot in Washington State) when I decided I was going to be the first to write about AIDS among Native Alaskans living in “the Bush.” It was 1990, and I’d already broken many AIDS stories nationally and internationally while working as a San Francisco-based correspondent for Reuters and for the Atlantic City Press, notably the sad story of Brendan O’Rourke,  one of the first children to participate in an AZT pilot program, who’d  toyed with my ear at five before dying at eight. My new paper, meanwhile, had won a Pulitzer for a series about alcoholism and suicide rates among the Natives. We ran an ad asking for someone from a village to come forward, guaranteeing anonymity. A social worker with the Alaska Native Health Service, Lureeta Whitewing-Porter, with whom I’d already collaborated on a story about a group of high school students from Nome who had created a play about AIDS, immediately called me up, alarmed: “You can’t do this story.” There was no such thing as anonymity in a Bush village of 150 people, she explained, and the person would be stigmatized. When I replied with the old liberal bromide that knowledge was power, she asked me (furnishing a reliable touchstone for my subsequent investigative journalism): “What is your intention?”

My editor pointed out that the paper had a reputation for covering the Native community with sensitivity, citing the Pulitzer Prize-winning series. He didn’t realize what it had taken me only three months to understand: The Natives did not perceive that series in the same way, but rather as having stigmatized them as victims. At the time there was only one Native on the paper, and she had arrived after the alcoholism and suicide stories were published.

Well, Ariane Mnouchkine and Robert Lepage must have gone to the same school of paternalistic if well-meaning liberal thought as Pat Dougherty, my editor on the ADN, because despite vociferous First Nations protest over the lack of ANY indigenous people in her Theatre du Soleil’s production of his “Kanata,” which purports to tell the history of their persecution — up to and including the recent wave of murders and disappearances of indigenous women in the Canadian province of British Columbia — they’ve not only persisted, after an initial annulment, in opening the play December 15 at the Cartoucherie outside Paris, where it runs through February 15, but have incorporated the controversy into the play in a way which apparently makes Lepage come out as the victim. (I say ‘apparently’ because I have no desire to participate, even as an observer, in a play about victims which excludes the victims.)

Mnouchkine, a venerated icon of the alt theater Parisian scene for more than half a century, has compounded the problem by mounting the type of arrogant (the Western cultural maven knows best), dismissive defense that more typically comes from liberal than conservative quarters. Responding on the theater’s website to the question of whether she and Lepage are guilty of “cultural appropriation,” Mnouchkine insists:

“It’s impossible to appropriate something which is not and has never been a physical or intellectual property.” As if, coming from a purveyor of cultural heritages who should know better, this specious and intellectually lazy argument was not bad enough, she continues: “The stories of groups, or hoards, of clans, of tribes, of ethnicities, of peoples, of nations cannot be trade-marked, as some claim, because they all belong to the grand history of humanity….It’s this grand history which is the artist’s territory.” In other words, my artistic chops give me the right to harvest and macerate your story even if I don’t have any socially legitimate claim on it. (I should try this argument with the landowners who have put up “No mushroom-hunting” signs all over my corner of the Perigord — where 90% of forests are private — the next time I want to go looking for succulent cepes.) She goes on: “Cultures — all cultures — are our sources and, in a certain way, they’re all sacred. We must drink from therein studiously, with respect and recognition, but we cannot accept that we’re forbidden from approaching them….” To stick with the rural — and enological — analogies, following this principal I can make a wine tour of the Lot and break into any winery I want and grab as much of their hard-earned product as I want and if anyone protests, I’ll just answer, “I’m a critic, I have a right to use your food as my fodder.”

Voila a circumlocution more fitting to a dancer than an actor, because Mnouchkine skirts around the question, which is not one of forbidding access to a culture, but rather of excluding the very actors of that culture from your white, non-Indigenous attempt to represent it — and to appropriate it for your own purposes. In other words, even if the exclusion is one of omission rather than commission, you’re not only squatting their house, you’re locking them out of it.

To provide a counter, more appropriate model of cultural access, when I was in junior high school in San Francisco, I was invited — even recruited, as I recall — to participate in a production of a Langston Hughes poem-play directed by an African-American artist in a predominantly Black neighborhood. I was not made to feel that I had no standing or that I was a member of the oppressing class. Rather, I was treated as an American to whom this culture also belonged. The difference is that instead of me locking them out of their own house, they were not just inviting me into theirs, but telling me “We are all at home here.”

This is not what Ariane Mnouchkine and Robert Lepage, two white people, are doing in pretending to depict the tragedy of the First Nations without the participation of any First Nations people.

Ms. Mnouchkine’s defense — ”Culture cannot be owned by any one person, it belongs to everyone” — reminds me of another French liberal’s recent opposition to president Emmanuel Macron’s announced (and laudable) intention to return the estimated 80,000 objects of art pillaged from African countries during colonial times to their nations of origin. To the usual, patronizing argument that African countries don’t have the proper facilities to take care of and mount the art put forth by some art “experts,” the liberal radio commentator Sylvain Bourmeau added this one: Culture, he argued, belongs not just to the creator but the receiver, or audience. Outside of the Grateful Dead, which used to rope off a whole section of its concerts for “the tapers” — appropriate for a band which owed so much to the hippies — I can’t think of any Western artist or presenter who would accept an audient’s going to a play and stealing it. This argument is even more feeble in France, where the composers’ rights organization SACEM is quick to pounce on any restaurant, boutique, or barber-shop with the audacity to play a CD without buying the rights to do so. (On the France Culture critical round-table program La Dispute, another commentator offered an even more ludicrous defense than Mnouchkine’s: the multi-culti character of the Theatre du Soleil’s troupe. You seen one minority, you’ve seen them all….)

Speaking of appropriating, before now quoting copiously from Guiseppe Valiante’s article in the Quebecoise journal La Presse relaying how actual First Nations people feel about “Kanata,” I’ll give you the link where you can find the original French version, here .

The Inuit writer Maya Cousineau Mollen (Valiante reports), one of 30 First Nations artists and militants who met with Lepage last year and challenged him to convince them that an authentic Indigenous presence was not essential to assuring his account’s authenticity, travelled to Paris for the December premiere “with the hope that Robert Lepage had heard the critiques of indigenous artists. But she left the theater disappointed” and not at all convinced by the final result, which claims to represent the history of relations between white and Indigenous peoples in Canada. It also accentuates the focus on the fate of assassinated and missing Indigenous women in and around Vancouver in recent years. Mollen was particularly disturbed by a scene featuring the assassination of a young Indigenous woman by a character inspired by the serial killer Robert Pickton. “In part because of this ‘brutal and violent’ scene, the play would not have been as well-received in Western Canada as in Paris, according to Madame Cousineau Mollen,” Valiante notes.

But perhaps the most disingenuous element of this latest, post-contestation version of Lepage’s play is the way — in the guise of incorporating the controversy into the play — the author has twisted the question around so that he now not only excludes the very victims whose saga he purports to chronicle but poses as the victim. Or, as Valiante relates, “Guy Sioui Durand, a Huron sociologist and art critic, also flew to Paris” to check the show out first hand. “He didn’t appreciate the way that Lepage integrated into the piece a French artist who asks if she has the right to paint portraits of the murdered Indigenous women. ‘It’s as if,’ M. Sioui Durand explains in an interview, ‘in injecting the controversy into the play, Lepage and the theater are posing as the victims, via the (real) victims, these murdered and missing women.”

Mollen was invited to Paris by Gerty Dambury, a member of the collective Décoloniser les arts, based in the county of St.-Denis which borders Paris, and from which I’m writing you today. Speaking to Valiante, Dambury suggests that “for the French cultural milieu,” when the question of cultural appropriation is brought up, it’s treated as “communitarianism,” “indigenisme,” “racialism,” and censorship targeting “artistic liberty. This is very clear in (the defense of) Madame Mnouchkine.”

But — and as I noted earlier — it’s not a question of proscribing others from addressing their histories, but excluding the very people affected from these efforts. Or as a collective of First Nations artists and activists and their supporters pointed out in an open letter to the French artists participating in “Kanata” (and very sympathetic with the cast itself) and published in the Quebecoise daily Le Devoir just before the premiere put it:

“We’re always happy to welcome into our ranks — or even to serve the vision of — non-indigenous creators who see our history as an essentially human epic. In Canada and Quebec, among the Indigenous Nations, there’s a substantial pool of artists, of talents, and of varied expertises in the domaine of the arts and stage capable of meeting the most demanding artistic challenges, without even talking about the need of apprentisage and experiences for young people just starting out in artistic fields. We’re surprised that once again they’ve all been ignored, even by those who say they want to revisit the recent history of the First Nations people in their relationship with the colonial states.

“Today the winds are shifting, with more and more people calling into question the colonialist way of thinking which has for far too long served as a pretext to deny our right to speak for ourselves. Some arts financing institutions have initiated funding policies geared to enable us to stop being seen as simple objects of curiosity and nothing more. Nonetheless, we’re still too often marginalized by the major cultural instititutions, our voices being seen at times as too exotic, at times not exotic enough to meet the pre-conceptions of the cultural majority. And yet the authenticity which we harbor is our biggest asset, and we oppose — because it’s this that is our responsibility — aesthetic and folkloric counterfeits in which our people have been and still are seen as toys.

“For all these reasons we retain, before ‘Kanata,’ the sense of a missed opportunity.”

PS: Looking at the production photo which accompanies the open letter — see the link above — I see a more insidious issue here: It reminds me of those ’50s films in which Indian ‘squaws’ were usually depicted by gorgeous white babes — often Natalie Wood — in dark pancake make-up. The darker message conveyed was that real Indians weren’t pretty (or handsome; Rock Hudson, Jeffrey Hunter, Jeff Chandler, or Robert Wagner would often play the brave) enough to play themselves.