A row over alleged racism and attacks on freedom of expression has erupted in France after students prevented a Greek tragedy featuring actors using black masks from being performed at the Sorbonne, claiming it was “Afrophobic, colonialist and racist”.
Demonstrators who picketed the prestigious Paris university to stop actors entering the theatre said the play, The Suppliants by Aeschylus, was being performed with blackface and was offensive.
They have called on the university to publicly apologise and organise “courses in the question of systemic oppression” for professors and administrations.
Sorbonne administrators and the play director insisted none of the actors had blacked-up faces but wore masks in keeping with the tradition of ancient Greek theatre.
The protest was swiftly condemned by the government and university heads.
In a joint statement Frédérique Vidal, higher education and research minister, and Franck Riester, culture minister, expressed their “stupefaction”. They said preventing the performance was “an unprecedented attack on freedom of expression and creation in a university, which is contrary to all academic values and republican principles”.
The Sorbonne said the play recounted the story of the Greek Argives and the Danaids – the 50 daughters of Danus from Egypt – and was to be performed strictly according to ancient theatre practices “with actors wearing white masks and black masks as was done at the time”.
“Stopping by force and insulting the cast of a piece of theatre is a very serious and totally unjustified on artistic freedom,” it wrote in a statement.
It added that accusing the production of “racism or racialism” showed “a complete lack of understanding”.
“Liberty, diversity, creativity, the rigour and openness are founding values of the Sorbonne University, which is profoundly humanist and anti-racist,” it wrote.
The play was due to be performed on Monday and is directed by Philippe Brunet of the Démodocos theatre company – named after Démodocos, a minstrel mentioned by Homer and formed at the Sorbonne in 1995 by a group of professors who organise an annual ancient theatre festival, Les Dionysies.
UNÉF, the national students’ union, wrote: “In a context of racism omnipresent at national level in our country, our university campuses remain unhappily permeable to the rest of society, perpetrating the racist schemas at their heart.
“UNÉF denounces the use of blackface in all its forms in society and particularly in our universities. The blackface is essentially a racist practice, from a colonial past.”
The missive demands the cancelling of the play, a public apology by the university, guarantees there will be no more similar plays, and the “organisation of training in the question of systemic oppression for administrative and teaching staff”.
Brunet insisted the actors wore masks on stage, not blackface, and that the row stemmed from a misunderstanding sparked by a photo taken from rehearsals of a white actor with her face covered with “coppery make-up”.
Brunet told Le Monde the protests were a “form of radicalisation that open a breach that is very dangerous for freedom of express[ion], and for art as a whole. I wanted these people to see the play and to judge afterwards, but the censors decided otherwise.”
Masks were widely used in ancient Greek theatre by actors who put them on to play more than one role and to represent women, who did not perform on the stage. They often had exaggerated features in order to be seen by the audience at a distance.
Alain Tallon, a history professor at the Sorbonne’s faculty of letters, said the protest was “absurd” and that the university “firmly condemned the practice of blacking up to mock black people”.
Louis-Georges Tin, honorary president of the Representative Council of Black Associations in France, defended the protest. “There is no good or bad blackface in the same way there is no good or bad racism. However, there is a conscious blackface and an unconscious one. Racism isn’t just an ideology reserved for the far right, that would be too simple. And that’s why we fight,” he told Le Monde.
The Sorbonne said it was looking at ways to stage the performance at a future date.