A black theatre performer from Montreal has filed a lawsuit against an anti-racism activist for alleging that his puppet show was racist and a form of “blackface.” 

Performer Franck Sylvestre alleges that Alain Babineau made unreasonable claims regarding a puppet in one of Sylverstre’s theatre pieces, which has since damaged his career and reputation.  

Sylvestre’s show, which is called, “L’incroyable secret de barbe noire” — French for The Incredible Secret of Blackbeard, had been advertised as a children’s show but it was cancelled over allegations of racism. 

Sylvestre filed the lawsuit against Babineau at the Montreal courthouse on Wednesday.

Babineau “unreasonably associated the plaintiff and his puppet with racism, with the submission of Black people to white people and even white supremacism and the dehumanization of Black people,” reads the lawsuit. 

It goes on to say that Babinau’s criticism was an attack on Sylvestre’s reputation, which aimed “to expose him to the hatred and contempt of the public in general and the Black community in particular.”

Babineau is the racial profiling and public safety director at the activist group The Red Coalition.

While speaking at a news conference last February, he called for elements of the theatre piece to be cancelled. 

Babineau claimed that the puppet Sylvestre was using was an example of anti-Black racism, likening it to blackface minstrel shows of the past, which were performed to mock black people and their culture. 

Babineau said the play was a “drop of systemic racism” in a social media post on X at the time. 

The lawsuit alleges that among similar posts made last February by Babineau, he made comments suggesting that Sylvestre was a “sellout” in the service of white people. 

However, the puppet’s image is based on Sylvestre’s likeness and there is nothing inherently racist about it, argues Guillaume Rousseau, the lawyer representing Sylverstre in the lawsuit. 

Rousseau said that while it’s not defamatory to ascribe the label of racism to actual racist commentary, that is not the situation in this case. Instead, it’s “someone who is clearly not racist, with a show that is clearly not racist,” making Babineau’s comments defamatory.

“It’s an issue of freedom of artistic expression,” said Rousseau in an interview with the Montreal Gazette last Wednesday.

“If every representation of a Black person that doesn’t please Mr. Babineau and others becomes blackface, it becomes the subject of calls for censorship, that limits my client’s freedom of artistic expression and, potentially, that of other artists.”

Only one performance of the show was allowed to proceed in a suburb of Montreal but all other shows were cancelled and it was removed from Montreal’s Black History Month official programming. 

“That affected him a lot,” said Rousseau. “He’s proud of being a Black artist, he’s proud to talk about Martinique, about his origins and the puppet in question is a bit of a hero, so for him it’s very positive, it’s for living together, and to see it interpreted in an unreasonable manner, as if it was racist, that affected him in particular.”

The lawsuit is seeking $26,000 in damages and alleges that Sylvetre’s career as a children’s performer has been threatened, as he is now unfairly perceived as “controversial” by many, which will affect future bookings. 

The Red Coalition maintains that the appearance of the puppet is racist and therefore could offend people.

“Anti-Black imageries have historically stereotyped Black people as grotesque, dim-witted, lazy, buffoonish, cowardly, superstitious, and overly cheerful,” wrote the group in a statement on Wednesday. 

“The Red Coalition’s legal team is prepared to vigorously defend against the lawsuit, which they deem frivolous.”

Sylvester’s lawyer sent a cease and desist letter to Babineau last September, prior to filing the suit but Babineau responded by saying he would contest any legal action taken against him. 

“I will continue to fight with determination for all causes that I think are just, including the fight against anti-Black racism in Canada,” responded Babineau at the time.