The uproar around ‘anti-racist’ theatrical show Exhibit B has reached a climax. On Tuesday night, hundreds of protestors demonstrated against the performance outside The Vaults venue in London, beating drums and carrying placards calling the show “an exhibition of white privilege”. The show could not go on and was cancelled. Now, organisors and actors are denouncing the protests as an act of censorship.
The Barbican, Europe’s largest arts venue and one of Exhibit B’s hosts in London, criticised the protests, saying the withdrawal of the show is an affront to freedom of expression.
“Given that protests are scheduled for future performances of Exhibit B we have had no choice but to cancel all performances of the piece. We find it profoundly troubling that such methods have been used to silence artists and performers and that audiences have been denied the opportunity to see this important work,” a spokesperson told the Guardian.
Exhibit B re-enacts 19th century human zoos in various scenes and settings. In one performance, a black woman takes on the submissive role of a coloniser’s sex slave, while in another piece a black man is locked in a cage to evoke dehumanisation. The production is currently in London as part of a European tour. It has already been shown in 12 cities.
The problem, according to naysayers, is that Exhibit B ironically reaffirms the racism and dehumanisation of the original human zoos, rather than challenging them.
If people who experience and campaign against racism daily are protesting against your anti-racist work, then your work is not anti racist.
— T. O. (@TOMolefe) September 24, 2014
The degradation of black performers in the installation and the spectacle it created for onlookers sparked controversy.
Director Brett Bailey defended his show in the Guardian’s Comment Is Free section and criticising the cancellation of the show and what he described as “the censoring of creative work”.
“I stand against any action that calls for the censoring of creative work or the silencing of divergent views, except those where hatred is the intention. The intention of EXHIBIT B is never hatred, never fear, never prejudice,” Bailey said. “It has not been my intention to alienate people with this work. To challenge perceptions and histories, yes. Explicitly to offend: no.”
“Do any of us really want to live in a society in which expression is suppressed, banned, silenced, denied a platform? My work has been shut down today, whose will be closed down tomorrow?” he asked.
Last month, performers involved in the project in Scotland spoke about their discomfort with the material and how it was being consumed by audiences.
But in London, actors were outraged their show has been cancelled.
“I think this is insane in 2014. I’m upset and angry. The protests claim the performers are puppets and have sold out, which I find deeply offensive,” Stella Odunlami, who played the role of a Nigerian asylum seeker, told the Independent.
For now, the longstanding debate around art, censorship and the ethics of expression continues to be hotly contested.