Black artist's puppet show cancelled after outcry by West Island Black community

Franck Sylvestre, the artist behind L’Incroyable Secret de Barbe Noire, is shocked by the controversy. He says the puppet is based on himself and stopping him from performing sets a bad precedent for artists.  (Jennifer Yoon/CBC - image credit)
Franck Sylvestre, the artist behind L’Incroyable Secret de Barbe Noire, is shocked by the controversy. He says the puppet is based on himself and stopping him from performing sets a bad precedent for artists. (Jennifer Yoon/CBC - image credit)

A children's puppet show created and performed by a Black artist has been cancelled in Beaconsfield following complaints from the West Island's Black community about what they are calling a blackface puppet.

Beaconsfield Mayor Georges Bourelle says he started getting complaints from the Black community a few days ago, after Pointe-Claire decided to go ahead with the play.

The complaints prompted a special caucus meeting on Monday to decide whether or not Beaconsfield should go through with the play, scheduled for Feb. 27.

"After discussion and looking at the complaints that we received, the council decided to cancel the presentation," said Bourelle. "We didn't want to get into the controversy, so the best decision was to cancel the show."

Calls on Pointe-Claire to cancel the show

The puppet show, L'Incroyable secret de barbe noire, is still scheduled to be performed in Pointe-Claire on Feb. 26, and some in Montreal's Black community are calling on that city to pull the plug on the performance.

Jennifer Yoon/CBC
Jennifer Yoon/CBC

This morning, the West Island Black Community Association (WIBCA) and the Red Coalition, an anti-racism group, held a news conference to denounce what it called Pointe-Claire's "tolerance of a clearly racist children's play featuring a grotesque blackface puppet."

WIBCA president Joan Lee said she fears that young Black children will be exposed to a negative portrayal of Blackness and possibly be ridiculed.

"We want Pointe-Claire to know that their citizens do not want this play," she said. "They've asked for the opinion of the community and we gave that opinion and we wish that they would listen to that opinion."

Lee says the WIBCA has been in talks with Pointe-Claire Mayor Tim Thomas and communicated to him that she thinks play should be cancelled there, too.

"We don't think the puppet is appropriate. It's Black History Month. That's not the image that we want to show our children," she said.

"I hope that the artist knows that in North America, the climate that we are in now, a blackface puppet, is totally not acceptable … This is bringing us back to the 1940s.

"It's not about being censored … it's time for a change," she said. "Even within the Black community, you need to change as well."

Jennifer Yoon/CBC
Jennifer Yoon/CBC

Allison Saunders, a resident of Pointe-Claire, says she is concerned about the puppet show playing in her neighbourhood. Saunders first saw the puppet a few months ago in an advertisement and says she felt "disrespected."

Later, when she saw that it was included in Pointe-Claire's programming for Black History Month, she says she wrote a letter to Mayor Thomas to voice her concerns.

Frustrated and disappointed that the puppet show is still going ahead, she is calling for more diversity in the people making decisions about the city's programming.

At the same time, she says she is having uncomfortable conversations with fellow members of the Black community, francophones and anglophones, some of whom disagree with her.

The city of Pointe-Claire declined to comment, saying that it had tried to arrange a meeting between the artist and WIBCA members before the puppet show on Sunday, but that they could not find a time for all to meet.

Artist defends his creation

Franck Sylvestre, the man behind the puppet — who is himself Black — disagrees with the idea that his puppet promotes anti-Black racism.

He says he has been performing the show for the past 15 years without incident and is surprised by the recent controversy.

"It's a show that's full of love, laughter and joy," he said.

The puppet at the centre of the controversy is based on himself.

"The only person that inspired me was myself. I have the face I have. I have big lips and a big nose. The puppet is bald, however."

Exaggeration is part of the basics of theatre, Sylvestre said, comparing it to Japanese masks with large eyes. Making changes to the puppet would infringe on his artistic liberty, Sylvestre said.

"It's serious, not only for me, but for the artistic community," he said. "It's a precedent in terms of freedom of speech and artistic liberty."

Sylvestre says he understands the history behind blackface, but says his puppet has been taken out of context.

He also says he is getting support from other Black artists and that the West Island doesn't speak for all of the Black community.