"Racist" play cancelled by Surrey school district after Vancouver group objects

U.S. theatre group's manager/director hints at legal action and says production is actually antiracist

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      The only scheduled performance of a touring play described as "racist" by a Metro Vancouver group has been cancelled.

      In response, the theatrical troupe's manager/director—who said he found out about the cancellation only when preparing to board a flight to Vancouver—is seeking legal advice.

      A group that calls itself No Blackface Vancouver set up a website to address the show and issued a statement on October 31 requesting that the performance not proceed because of its alleged racist narrative and costumes.

      The play, Double Trouble, was scheduled for one performance on Saturday (November 2) at the Bell Performing Arts Centre (BPAC) in Surrey. According to the BPAC website, the play's plot concerns a Middle Eastern couple who loses their life savings to a Nigerian scammer.

      A U.S-based troupe, Ajyal Theatrical Group, is touring the production. The 1,100-seat BPAC is owned and operated by Surrey School District No. 36, although the play was being mounted for public viewing, with ticket prices ranging from $59 to $87.

      The school district cancelled the show soon after being contacted about the group's concerns.

      In its statement, No Blackface Vancouver cited "blackface; the perpetuation of racist, anti-Black, anti-African (anti-Nigerian) and Orientalist narratives and tropes; and the inappropriate use of stereotypically exaggerated African and Chinese costume" as reasons to scrub the production.

      "As a multicultural Metro Vancouver population, we recognize the importance of hosting diverse artistic productions. However, the American-based Im Hussein Ajyal Theatrical Group website and social media pages for "Double Trouble Im Hussein" have a clear track record of using blackface and culturally appropriated traditional costumes, which is unacceptable and reinforces harmful racial hierarchies."

      Today (November 1), a cancellation notice for Double Trouble appeared on the Bell Performing Arts Centre website. It read: "Please be advised, this show has been cancelled. Patrons who have already bought tickets to this event, will be refunded by the payment means in which they purchased the tickets."

      Aslam Bulbulia, who described himself as a member of the organizing team for No Blackface Vancouver, told the Georgia Straight by phone on November 1 that the ad hoc group came together after community members saw trailers for the play and observed its use of blackface and what Bulbulia called "racist tropes".

      "We didn't think that we needed a no-blackface group in 2019, but..." Bulbulia said. He noted that the group called the theatre and was told that BPAC was not responsible for the content of productions.

      Bulbulia also said No Blackface Vancouver called the theatre company in the U.S. and was told that the play actually contained an antiracist message. "It does seem to advocate for antiracism to some extent," Bulbulia acknowledged. "But we noted that the use of blackface was completely unacceptable to achieve that."

      He said he was doing a radio interview the afternoon of November 1 when he heard that the school district had cancelled the play. "We do want the dialogue to continue," Bulbulia added.

      Ritinder Matthew, communications manager for Surrey schools, told the Straight that the school district acted quickly. "This matter was brought to our attention this morning. We received some concerns from the community....Surrey schools do not condone racism and take such matters very seriously," she told the Straight by phone from her home.

      Matthew said that after the district "carefully considered" the situation and viewed some of the play's content in trailers and stills, "we made the decision to move forward" with the cancellation. She said the district was satisfied that there was use of blackface. "I can confirm that. That's where the community concern came from.

      "We have been in touch with the organizers of the play, and they're aware of the situation." Asked what their reaction was to the news of the cancellation, Matthew said: "I can't comment on that."

      Aziz Charabaty, the manager of Ajyal Theatrical Group and the play's director, told the Straight that he and members of the production were at the airport today, preparing to board their flight to Vancouver, when they received news of the cancellation.

      "I am really disappointed," Charabaty said, calling from Los Angeles. "I think the issue was people got offended by seeing a Middle Eastern man playing an African. He is a dark Middle Eastern man and he put a wig on."

      Charabaty said that Double Trouble, which is performed in both Arabic and English, has been touring since March 2018 with no objections. "Actually, this is the first time that we have been contacted about this, ever," he said. "I don't know why people think that these are black people and we are making fun of them."

      He said one male character is presented as Lebanese and another as the son of a Lebanese man and a Liberian woman. He acknowledged that one of them wears a wig and some "foundation"-type makeup, but he insisted that the play is not racist.

      "There is an antiracist message and a big feminist message in this play."

      Charabaty added that he sent pictures of the characters and some script pages to the Surrey school district to back up his claims but that they still cancelled. He said the BPAC date had been booked for nine months and that the troupe had spent time and money in preparation for the event.

      "I'm going to talk to a lawyer tomorrow," he said. "They are shaming our image."