Robert Lepage’s Zulu Time

A Dehumanizing Show

written by Rahul Varma in June 2003

Zulu Time, a lavish multimedia event created by Robert Lepage and rock star Peter Gabriel, was billed as the centrepiece of Quebec New York 2001, a month-long festival celebrating Quebecois culture that was scheduled to open in New York on 21 September 2001 but was postponed in the wake of 9/11. While ex-Premier Bernard Landry and his Minister Louise Beaudoin personally expressed their condolences to the victims, Lepage benefited from the postponement when it was revealed that Zulu Time was set in airports and had terrorism as a central theme.

Now, as President Bush ‘s “liberation” of Iraq has finished off the unfinished business of Bush senior’s “Operation Desert Storm,” Lepage’s Zulu Time continues its world tour, supporting a particular world vision defined by US militarism.

Zulu Time consists of 26 scenes, each named after a letter of the international radio transmission code used by aviators: A for Alpha, B for Bravo,… I for India,…and finally Z for Zulu. Lepage’s “Zulu Time” refers to the military’s universal clock. Apparently, Lepage was “blown away” by the profundity of the idea of the whole world agreeing on a common concept of time. He told Don Shewey of the New York Times (September 16, 2001), “When they bombed Belgrade, bombers leaving from San Diego were synchronized with bombers from Italy, and they were on Zulu time.”
The action in Zulu Time unfolds on a giant metal catwalk that moves up and down and from side to side. A huge projection screen moves in and out of the scene while a soundscape – a mix of hip hop, (distort­ed) Indian classical, and other musical styles – pul­sates in the background. The play chillingly depicts a terrorist-instigated plane crash, punctuated by breathtaking footage of warplanes and accompanied by deafening thunder, smoke, sparks, and fire to convey a sense of urgency, panic, and destruction. Zulu Time employs a cavalcade of character-types: pilots, stewardesses, drug traffickers, a golfer, travelers, acrobats, contortionists, singers, DJs, robots, and more. Zulu Time is an air travel fantasy – bodies floating through an airplane cabin, divers searching for underwater remains, an upside-down tango, an ener­getic robot dance, and a golfer repeatedly swinging his golf club. It depicts a flight attendant’s sexual fan­tasy in which a black robotic figure jumps on her from the ceiling and repeatedly lifts her in the air and slams her back on the bed before disappearing into the ceil­ing, only to reappear and repeat the same actions but with more intensity. Each repetition leaves her more exhausted and with fewer clothes on her body.

Lepage’s fascination with technology represents a form of cultural colonization in which the technologi­cal means of his art form mask the hidden message. Zulu Time is an exemplary demonstration of how multimedia art that is developed and controlled by the West can misinform, misinterpret, and malign the reality of the East in order to exercise political, social, and economical control over it.

Beneath the mesmerizing glitter and technological excellence of Zulu Time lies a perverse and dehuman­izing show. In scene after scene, peoples and cultures other than Lepage’s own are consumed to feed Western colonial fantasies. We are presented with such images as a South Asian woman carrying a candle and shabbi­ly dressed in a sari, a Muslim woman in a burka who lets out a piercing scream, and a male terrorist who loosely resembles a Sikh, (even though by Lepage’s own admission the show was triggered by Middle Eastern terrorists). In another scene, entitled India, the face of an East Indian woman with a large bindi and luscious lips is projected on a giant film screen as a male percussionist effectively “plays” her: each time he strikes an electronic drum her mouth emits a classi­cal Indian taal/alap. Between each beat, her face is electronically frozen in a contorted grimace, drawing chuckles from the audience.

It is regressive because it keeps the public and its audiences distracted from questioning whether US warmongering is any different from the terror America claims to be fighting.

Even more disturbing is the depiction of Africans as dumb savages: a Zulu warrior tries hopelessly to learn to use a microphone (finally shoving it into his mouth) and a woman dressed in a black monkey suit “apes” for a white man while a video shows Peter Gabriel teaching apes to play the keyboard. All of these images demonstrate a colonial mindset, one that hasn’t yet freed the white man from a paternalistic desire to civilize others – the animal, the woman, and the natives.
White actors played all but one of the non-white “characters” and ethnic stereo­ types. In this regard, Lepage ‘s instinct per­ chance turned out to be a good thing, as no actor of colour (except the “ape woman “) was made to conspire against the dignity of their culture and history. If cast­ing the actor as monkey woman wasn’t degrading enough, however, Lepage deco­rated the lobby with a larger than life-sized photograph of the naked actor standing upside down in a balancing act. Lepage, who sees the art of the twenty­-first century as a convergence of disci­plines, told Shewey in the same New York Times article, “it’s not a homogenous group of people doing the same craft […] you have interesting artists finding a coherent balance in an elegant way of telling one story […] stories about loneli­ness and traveling, or about misunderstanding different cultures, or about men and women.”

Lepage’s team adheres to the theory of rock musician-philosopher Brian Eno, who maintains that the postmodern artist is pri­marily a curator. In Zulu Time‘s program, Eno is quoted as saying, “There is no longer such a thing as art history, but there are multiple art stories.”

If Zulu Time is to be seen as an example of Eno’s theory, it raises the question: Can Lepage’s idea of postmodernist creation be considered a legitimate multiple art story when it utilizes a menu of myths, metaphors, and languages of the Other while sacrificing their dignity, culture, and history?

Lepage argues that Zulu Time presents an example of “technology’s new vocabu­lary connecting dramaturgical ideas and heartfelt emotions.” But in reality, it is a smokescreen masking the old colonial atti­tudes under the guise of new technology. Zulu Time is nothing more than a sense­-pleasing artistic product devoid of any serious dramaturgical ideas, revealing more about Lepage’s expanded beliefs and fantasies than the actual cultures and peo­ple he depicts in the show.

Lepage’s Zulu Time sells itself as cross-culturalism, but in reality it’s nothing more than a collection of constructed images of the Other. The real other is politically, historically, and artisti­cally absent. The potential for contrasting ideas and ideologies or for sophistication of analysis is sacrificed for a few simulated images, which range from superficial to exotic. Cultural diversity is diminished to a simulated likeness, which reveals the colo­nial mindset of historical superiority. For example, Zulu Time‘s white characters – doing drugs, living out their sexual fan­tasies, playing golf, and frequenting night clubs – are perceived as engaged in “civi­lized” pursuits, but only because his non­-white characters display primitive idiocy (e.g., eating a microphone, acting like an ape, emitting a piercing scream, disrobing, or performing an erotic dance).

Zulu Time is a regressive show in so far as it claims to present a cross-cultural per­spective but it fails to recognize the degree to which its own colonialist assumptions and arrogance are reified in its attempt to sympathetically depict the Other. It is regressive because while it is now pitched as a righteous artistic response to the events of September 11, in reality it reaps the benefits of the present climate by capi­talizing on the grief, anger, outrage, and fear of terror that followed the terrorist attack of 9/11.

It is regressive because it keeps the public and its audiences distracted from questioning whether US warmongering is any different from the terror America claims to be fighting.

It is regressive because it conspires thoughtlessly with a US media caught up in a shameless game of one-upmanship to provide news entertainment: a game designed to demonize those very countries that had previously carried out US-backed terrorism but are now seen as counter to the hegemonic purpose of the US.

It is regressive because of its superficial research. While Lepage acknowledges that Middle East terrorism played a prominent role in his conceptualization of the show, his “research ” focused on terrorist training camps in Kashmir (Matthew Hays, The Advocate, December 25, 2001.) Perhaps nobody told Lepage that Kashmir’s “terror­ist training camps” are the Kashmiri peo­ple’s attempt to defend themselves in a disputed land occupied by the armed forces of both India and Pakistan, which vastly outnumber the defenseless men, women, and children.

It is regressive because of its racist world view. Lepage told Matthew Hays of the Advocate (December 25, 2001), “we kept wondering if we had the right turban, if the guy would wear a beard. Then we sent all of this stuff off to New York just five days before the attack.” Not only does Lepage lack a clear understanding of the nature of the enemy – the “terrorist” – he sacrifices his objectivity for superficialities: rather than looking for cause and content he restricts himself to costumes, turbans, and beards. Much like a racist to whom all eth­nics look alike, Lepage perceives that all “terrorists ” look alike.

It is regressive because of its superficial look at airport security, which distracts attention from the racial profiling that rou­tinely targets Arabs, Moslems, and South Asians as terrorism suspects at our border posts. In one scene, a white man fails a metal detector test until one by one all metallic objects are removed from his per­son, including “ornaments” from his nip­ples and genitals. He is gradually stripped naked, to the audible delight of the audi­ence. By stripping a white passenger to the amusement of his audiences, Lepage desensitizes them to the dehumanizing sur­veillance and control that non-white pas­sengers are regularly subjected to at our border points.

We must question the show’s patronage given the fact that Louise Beaudoin, then Quebec’s Minister of Culture and International Relations, had been enthusi­astically citing Zulu Time to elevate Lepage to an iconic status as representative of cross-cultural attitudes in Quebec. In pro­moting this vision of Quebec, Landry, and Beaudoin failed to recognize that Quebec, like the rest of Canada, is a multi-ethnic and multi-racial society in which misrepre­sentation and nonrecognition seriously diminish the other. Lepage’s Zulu Time exhibits a colonial mentality in which the dignity of the other is sacrificed on the altar of an assimilationist cultural agenda.

Rahul Varma is a director and playwright, born in India and based in Montreal, Quebec. He is the co-founder and Artistic Director of Teesri Duniya Theatre , a multicultural company dedicated to artistic diversity.