Théâtre Porte Parole Fredy, vue de la performance performance view, Théâtre La Licorne, Montréal, 2016.
Photo : Maxime Côté, permission de Théâtre Porte Parole | courtesy of Théâtre Porte Parole

No One Gives a F**k About a Cop and Fredy: Conveying the Voices of the Collectivity

Edith Brunette
A consideration of collectivity in art naturally leads to modes of production and how they are used by artist collectives. Right away, though, this limits the scope of our thinking, as art does not begin or end with the will and action of artists: dismantling the myth of the “genius” also means considering creation as a process rooted in a common social fabric and the actions, ideas, and affects that circulate within it.

Recent movements of political affirmation — such as Idle No More and Black Lives Matter — have pushed art institutions to focus on more politically engaged practices in which the collective form is particularly relevant. For those with practices intentionally rooted in decidedly material living conditions (the practices themselves and the lives and themes that they represent), it is a matter no longer simply of finding ways of working with other artists, but of labouring within one or several communities, and sometimes with them. Therefore, it’s not enough to ask, “How and with whom do we work?” One must also add, “For whom do we work?” And today, “How can art convey the collective voice at a time of extreme (or simply more visible) polarization?”

Two recent works offer different responses to the last question: Fredy, a play written by Annabel Soutar, directed by Marc Beaupré, and premiered at La Licorne (Montréal) in 2016, and Black and Blue Matters — Track 1: No One Gives a F**k About a Cop, a performance written by Omari Newton, directed by Diane Roberts, and presented in Parc Vinet (Montréal) in July 2021. Taking divergent approaches to how they relate to the communities whose stories they portray — in this case, the same story: the murder of a racialized young man by a white police officer — the works activate two ways of thinking about how art gets integrated into its social context. In Fredy, the context acts as a frame enclosing how one sees and understands what is being represented; in No One Gives a F**k, the context becomes the fertile soil out of which the practice emerges, which makes it possible and to which it will eventually return and contribute.

Fredy

Soutar, the founder of the theatre company Porte Parole (J’aime Hydro, Sexy Béton), has become known for what is described as “verbatim theatre,” a form of documentary theatre in which the story and dialogue are based on journalistic research. For Fredy, Soutar wanted to present the results of her investigation into the tragic death of Fredy Villanueva and the judicial, political, and media processes that followed. Villanueva, an eighteen-year-old man of Honduran origin, was shot and killed in 2008 by white police officer Jean-Loup Lapointe in a park in Montréal-Nord, even though neither he nor the other young people
he was with at the time were armed.

Soutar was trying to offer not her view of the events but that of the protagonists by taking up their words as they were reported in the media, public inquiry reports, and court transcripts. Her intention was to “present the whole story,”1 1 - Sara Dion, “Le partage d’Annabel Soutar,” Jeu, no. 156 (2015): 86 (our translation).— that is, the points of view of both the police officers and Fredy’s family and friends. Yet the Villanueva family, after a reluctant and difficult initial collaboration, later withdrew from the project entirely and demanded the cancellation of a second series of performances, announced for 2017 and 2018.2 2 - Caroline Montpetit, “‘Fredy’ envers et contre tous,” Le Devoir, December 16, 2017, accessible online. The victim’s mother, Lilian Madrid Villanueva, accused the playwright of exploiting her family’s tragedy without respecting her wishes. Out of solidarity, the actors Ricardo Lamour and Solo Fugère withdrew from the production, denouncing the “imbalance of power”3 3 - Robert Everett-Green, “Quebec Play Fredy Raises Questions About Power and Story Ownership,” The Globe & Mail, November 11, 2016, accessible online. and “theft of someone else’s words.”4 4 - Montpetit, “‘Fredy’ envers et contre tous” (our translation). The municipal police force, the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal, never wanted to collaborate on the project.

Théâtre Porte Parole
Fredy, performance views, Théâtre La Licorne, Montréal, 2016.
Photo : Maxime Côté, courtesy of Théâtre Porte Parole

Soutar nevertheless chose to continue mounting the performances, pleading the expectations of another collectivity separate from the groups who had experienced this tragedy — the public: “We had waiting lists of people who wanted to see the play. We had to remount it … It’s important to reach the public,”5 5 - Ibid. she said. Aside from the communities that were directly implicated in the events and had to suffer the violence and repercussions, there was supposedly another larger, homogeneous, undifferentiated, and neutral community — a community that had not yet been “reached” — that Soutar wanted to address first and foremost: the art public. Just like the chorus of ancient Greek tragedy tasked with conveying the voice of the social body onstage, “the public” was called upon to be the ultimate judge of the events — as much of Fredy Villanueva’s death as of the play itself and its author.

Soutar’s approach banks on an unbiased dialogue and the ability to listen to divergent positions, the only attitudes presumed capable of bringing out the truth: “Are we able to put aside our fears and prejudices to speak candidly about his death?”6 6 - “Fredy by Annabel Soutar,” Porte Parole, porteparole.org/en/plays/fredy/. Porte Parole asks on the project’s webpage. The bias for something that is purported to exist objectively (the truth) and the wager on each individual’s ability to discover this truth through a combination of information and sound judgment make it possible to treat the experiences (and trauma) of certain communities as material: they are perceived as shards of a larger, more objective, and thus more valid, reality. The communities involved are likewise considered to be parts of a greater whole (society), which, due to its aggregating and intersubjective qualities, is also given greater value. This is a fundamental idea of liberal thought, inherited from European modernity: society gains knowledge and wisdom through the confrontation of contradictory opinions, among which a reasonable individual is able to select the good from the not-as-good7 7 - An idea developed in particular by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty (1859).— a line of thought that Black feminist theories and cultural studies,8 8 - These two theoretical bodies of work both valorize the decentring of the subject and the position of marginality as a means of calling into question the invisible assumptions influencing the classical scientific process. In these critical theories, the “truth” that Soutar ostensibly seeks appears as an ideological production that no “neutral” point of view could ever access. among others, have tried to deconstruct.

No One Gives a F**k About a Cop

Five years after Fredy, the Black Theatre Workshop also broached the subject of the murder of racialized people by white police officers. No One Gives a F**k, likewise partially inspired by the tragedy in Montréal-Nord, stages the fictional trial of white police officer David Harrison (Troy Slocum) who shot black teenager Sammir Frederique (Justin Johnson) nine times.

Described as a “satirical Hip Hop musical” and presented in a park in Little Burgundy (a historically Black neighbourhood in Montréal), the fifteen-minute performance is an excerpt of a much longer work that will be produced in winter 2022. The musical takes the form of a rap battle between the two protagonists, and the turn of phrase in the title appears both as the police officer’s complaint (“no one supports us”) and as a protest statement by those who would like collective and institutional empathy to momentarily turn away from the defenders of order to focus on those who suffer from it.

The performance took place near the home plate of the baseball diamond in Parc Vinet, in front of the wire fencing protecting the bleachers. Yet the performance was oriented not toward the bleachers but toward the field, where the public was invited to gather. Standing in the sand, audience members faced an arrangement of white blocks — half-podiums, half-pedestals. Flanked by two projection screens on either side and the stand of the DJ (Godfather D) at the back, the public was placed literally in the arena.

Diverse voices, drawn from news reports, resonated against a background of hypnotic low-bass music. We recognized that of Québec Premier François Legault, who claimed (in English), “There is no systemic racism in Québec.” Then, a moving, shimmering, brown form took up position on the highest pedestal, while the defendant and the victim settled on either side, in a configuration evoking a court of law. The screens showed computer-generated images (the hands, then the head, of a Black woman — played by Nindy Banks — slowly dancing against an ethereal background) and video portraits of Black or racialized people taken in public spaces around the city. Looking directly into the camera with patient eyes, they electrified the air by their very presence or by the words printed on their clothes or signs: “Land back now,” “Am I next?” and “Black Lives Matter.”

A woman’s voice (Tali Taliwah) spoke out: “Welcome to the Oppressed People’s court.” The moving form was embodied by a woman of African descent (a Coligny), wearing a golden cape and Nefertiti headdress, at once a royal figure and the incarnation of Black Justice. Her voice resumed: “White people! Raise your right fist in the air and repeat after me: I acknowledge and reject white supremacy! I will shut my ass up and listen with humility and patience.”

The police officer and the victim rapped their respective arguments, the former criticizing the naiveté of the Defund the Police movement, the latter reciting the names of black people killed by police. Speaking again after dancing a solo of slow, sweeping movements, the woman-justice closed the performance with an injunction addressed to the (white) public — “Declare what side you’re on” — before turning her back to it. It was an injunction to join the political battle, an unexpected response to Soutar and her “objective” theatre, and a backhand shot at a judicial system based on the principle of steering clear of politics (even if only in an illusory manner).

Black Theatre Workshop
Black and Blue Matters Track 1: No One Gives a F**k About a Cop, performance views, parc Vinet, Montréal, 2021. Présented by National Arts Centre, Grand Acts of Theatre.
Script and direction : Diane Roberts, lyrics and concept : Omari Newton, casting : Justin Johnson, Troy Slocum, Jaleesa Coligny, sound : Troy Slocum, choreography : Alexandra “Spicey” Landé, costume : Nalo Soyini Bruce, video production : George Allister, projection : Patrick Boivin, lighting : Tim Rodrigues. Photos : Andrée Lanthier, courtesy of Black Theatre Workshop Production

Contrary to modern ideology, which claims the existence of a truth that can be discovered through objective reasoning, the proposed approach is resolutely situated. It recognizes the fact that neutrality, for some members of the larger social body, goes hand in hand with erasure and death9 9 - In In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), Fred Moten shows how the commodification of the Black body, in capitalist economy, has legitimized its depreciation: white “objectivity” is inseparable from the negation of a part of humanity’s value. By making the voice of Black people — the voice of the “object” deemed voiceless — resonate, Black performance resists this commodification. On the question of the (non-)value of the Black body in capitalist economy, see also David Marriott, “On Decadence: Bling Bling,” E-flux Journal, no. 79 (February 2017), accessible online. .

Roberts and Newton have a commitment, both in their work as artists and beyond, to communities of African descent of which they are members. They call on us — the public and, in particular, the white public — to take sides in a context in which the presumed neutrality of the judicial system has already proved its inability to equitably accommodate racialized subjects or make police officers accountable.

In contrast to the public community that had not yet been “reached,” on behalf of which and to which Soutar speaks, Roberts and Newton speak from their roots in a community that has been historically “reached”: marked in its flesh by the continual inscription of white violence.10 10 - In the view of Hortense J. Spillers, it was the reduction of the Black body to the state of flesh that made possible its exploitation in the economy of slavery — and which still makes possible today its wanton murder. See “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17, no. 2 (Summer 1987): 64 — 81. Here, the act of putting justice back into the hands of a Black court — and giving voice to murdered flesh in a rap battle — seems to act less like a call to “discover the truth” and more like a call to make visible: make the erasure visible, give the “flesh” back its humanity.

This is not to say that No One Gives a F**k refuses to make history heard in all its complexity. It invites us to a battle between the words of the police officer and those of the man he killed. As Newton explains, “I try as much as I can to make a balanced argument explaining the grievances of both sides.”11 11 - Jim Burke, “Black Theatre Workshop Returns with Provocative Black and Blue Matters,” The Montreal Gazette, July 23, 2021, accessible online. Moreover, the performance doesn’t pronounce a verdict on the murder itself: the verdict is the call made to the public to stop being neutral and immune to the struggles that actually take place and that Sammir Frederique (a fictional character), Fredy Villanueva, and members of their communities cannot escape. It is not a verdict on Harrison’s act, but on a larger collectivity’s — white society — and art’s unwillingness to take action, as it skims over politics without bothering to dive in.

Standing in the Sand

Roberts and Newton, like Soutar, address, through a clash of voices, the complexity of social tensions that allow “blue” bodies to decimate (most often with impunity) Black bodies. Soutar launches on a quest for an objective narrative that the collectivity (exemplarily represented by the public) can seize in order to find the source of reconciliation. In No One Gives a F**k, there won’t be any reconciliation without politics, without a truth-telling call to arms — that is, taking a risk by speaking.12 12 - In “Discourse and Truth: the Problematization of Parrhesia” (foucault.info/parrhesia/; see also journals.openedition.org/anabases/3956#bodyftn5, notes 5 and 7), Michel Foucault unpacks the concept of parrhesia — free speech or truth-telling — which is presented as a political necessity for the Greek thinkers of Antiquity. Using parrhesia means exposing the other to criticism, which always entails a risk for the speaker. Over time, parrhesia is itself subject to an evolution in critical thought, which raises the question “Who can express this truth-telling?” — a question that is at the core of the works discussed in this article. Fredy asks the public to be the judge, a central figure of the liberal system, in which law tends to replace politics.13 13 - See, for example, Jean-Fabien Spitz, La liberté politique : Essai de généalogie conceptuelle (Paris: Presses universitaires de France/Léviathan, 1995). By acknowledging the failure of the judicial system and the necessity (at the very least) of reforming its institutions, No One Gives a F**k calls on the public to become the actor of change.

Fredy and No One Gives a F**k represent two ways of conceptualizing collectivity: in one, the community is united in its faith in justice; in the other, it will exist only through future common action. The works also offer two visions of creation as a process embedded in community. In one, the artist and the public are held above creation, as though standing on an overhang, and art brings the hope of truth to be discovered by and for oneself — possibly because Soutar, just like the (mostly white) public she addresses, has not herself been “reached,” marked in her flesh by the events she recounts, and she therefore seeks in the exercise of reason a means of accessing them. In the other, the artists ask the public to stand with them in the loose, hot flesh of slippery sand, in a vision of collectivity in which there is no overhang, not for the police, not for the people murdered, not for those whom the bullets don’t reach.

Translated from the French by Oana Avasilichioaei

Black Theatre Workshop, Edith Brunette, Théâtre Porte Parole
Black Theatre Workshop, Edith Brunette, Théâtre Porte Parole
Black Theatre Workshop, Edith Brunette, Théâtre Porte Parole
Black Theatre Workshop, Edith Brunette, Théâtre Porte Parole
Black Theatre Workshop, Edith Brunette, Théâtre Porte Parole
Black Theatre Workshop, Edith Brunette, Théâtre Porte Parole
Black Theatre Workshop, Edith Brunette, Théâtre Porte Parole
Black Theatre Workshop, Edith Brunette, Théâtre Porte Parole
Black Theatre Workshop, Edith Brunette, Théâtre Porte Parole
Black Theatre Workshop, Edith Brunette, Théâtre Porte Parole
Black Theatre Workshop, Edith Brunette, Théâtre Porte Parole
Black Theatre Workshop, Edith Brunette, Théâtre Porte Parole
Black Theatre Workshop, Edith Brunette, Théâtre Porte Parole
Black Theatre Workshop, Edith Brunette, Théâtre Porte Parole
Black Theatre Workshop, Edith Brunette, Théâtre Porte Parole
This article also appears in the issue 104 - Collectives
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