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Centering Perspectives of Color in Theatre Criticism

With Arti Ishak and Yasmin Zacaria Mikhaiel

Nabra Nelson: Salaam alaikum. Welcome to Kunafa and Shay, a podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. Kunafa and Shay discusses and analyzes contemporary and historical Middle Eastern and North African, or MENA, theatre from across the region.

Marina J. Bergenstock: I’m Marina.

Nabra: And I’m Nabra.

Marina: And we’re your hosts.

Nabra: Our name, Kunafa and Shay, invites you into the discussion in the best way we know how, with complex and delicious sweets like kunafa and perfectly warm tea or in Arabic, shay.

Marina: Kunafa and Shay is a place to share experiences, ideas, and sometimes to engage with our differences. In each country in the Arab world, you’ll find kunafa made differently. In that way, we also lean into the diversity, complexity, and robust flavors of MENA theatre. We bring our own perspectives, research, and special guests in order to start a dialogue and encourage further learning and discussion.

Nabra: In our second season, we highlight US MENA theatremakers with an impact nationally and internationally. This season outlines the state of MENA theatre today through the lens of multigenerational and multidisciplinary artists.

Marina: Yalla, grab your tea. The shay is just right.

Nabra: For artists, getting a quality review of their show is often critical to continued success. It can make or break new plays and emerging artists. However, works by BIPOC artists have often been subjected to the white critical gaze in reviews, which has frequently not made any attempt to account for the complexity of culture outside of the reviewer’s own understanding. There has been a major push by BIPOC artists to counter the white supremacy of reviews, including who writes the critiques and what they write about. In this episode, Arti Ishak and Yasmin Zacaria Mikhaiel talk about their experiences as SWANA artists and critics, how they negotiate the field of criticism, and what changes can and must be made to the landscape. Before we begin, let’s introduce our guests.

Marina: Arti Ishak is an interdisciplinary artist and community organizer recently named a 2020 3Arts Make a Wave artist. Directing and credits include the workshop reading of Mosque4Mosque at Steppenwolf Theatre and A Heap See at Sideshow. Short films include Shukran Bas by Means of Production, Sun on Ice by Jackalope, and BaLa at HF productions. They are currently on the ETC stage at the Second City in The Best Decision You’ve Ever Made. Other acting credits include Kiss, Venus in Fur, Witch, Buried Child, Men on Boats, Fantastic Super Great Nation Numero Uno, and for TV, Chicago Med. Arti is staff with the Chicago Inclusion Project, an instructor at Black Box Acting, a reviewer at Rescripted, and an organizer with SWANASA Central. They are represented by Paonessa Talent Agency.

Nabra: Yasmin Zacaria Mikhaiel is a dramaturg, journalist, and oral historian with roots in and around Chicago. As a queer, fat, brown femme, they endeavor to amplify and archive stories that go lost, stolen and forgotten. Their writing and research explores possibility models for a more inclusive and sustainable theatre culture and industry. Mikhaiel holds an MA in Performance as Public Practice from the University of Texas at Austin and a BFA in dramaturgy and criticism from the Theatre School at DePaul University. They are the Chicago Reader’s audience engagement manager and teach as part-time faculty at TTS DePaul. They also serve as a guest respondent for the Kennedy Center [American College] Theater Festival, R3 Journalism, and R5 Dramaturgy. Select bylines include American Theatre, the Austin Chronicle, Sightlines, Chicago Reader, and Teen Vogue.

Marina: Thank you both so much for joining us today. It’s so exciting to be with artists that I really admire and whose work I’ve seen from afar, and now I’m getting to be in the same room with. [It’s] wonderful. Thank you.

Yasmin Zacaria Mikhaiel: Thank you so much for having us. Ugh. I love being in another space with Arti, because I don’t even remember the last time I saw Arti in person—

Arti Ishak: I know.

Yasmin: —which makes me so sad.

Arti: I know, I know. Yeah, it’s so wild because Yasmin and I exist in the same city, and we haven’t gotten to work with each other in years at this point. So, it’s really an honor. Thanks for having us.

Marina: Oh, well, hopefully you’ll get to work together soon, but right now glad to have you in conversation. My first question is sort of a general place to start, but you’re both multihyphenate artists, and I’m wondering how you describe yourselves and the work that you do? How do you see yourselves shaping and changing the theatre landscape with your art and your advocacy?

Yasmin: I can take first. I usually identify myself primarily as a dramaturg. I am a dramaturg that loves dramaturging. I don’t see it as a ladder to something else; it’s just where I love to be. But then, I also fell into arts journalism as a point of advocacy after a certain show landed in Chicago that I was really curious about the way that it had been written about. And it’s not necessarily that I thought, “Oh, my goodness. Now I am a person that can be a critic.” It’s just I had so many public questions about it. So, when I think about dramaturgy, I just think about curiosity and asking really open questions and that has very much translated to the way that I move in the world as a scholar. I’m also a professor now. And so, really being able to work with youth as I am youth has been super transformative in the ways that I’m taking up space as a dramaturg and an arts journalist.

Arti: Similar to Yasmin, I primarily identify as an actor and I found that that was my initial goal when I came into this industry, wanting to be a performer, and then realizing along the way that there are so many things that can happen between the time the script is written and the time a performance is executed that can change the course of the story. And I realized that having your hands in many different pots, if you will, can help you be a better-informed artist and how to navigate any potential representation issues that come up. I think when I initially started, I thought that being an actor you would have so much more agency over how you are represented, but it’s really quite the opposite. I feel like I very much started backwards in this industry, and now I’m working backwards to try and figure out what exactly is it that I want to do.

Nabra: That’s really interesting because we often... multihyphenate artists, I feel like, often just fall into other disciplines and other work, so it really sounds like you had this strong pull towards kind of having agency and giving your opinion to the public around certain arts pieces, which is, I feel like, such a great way to fall into arts criticism with this kind of urgent imperative. And both of you, I know, focus a lot of culturally informed arts criticism. And so, I would love for you to talk about what you see as the problem with arts criticism today, especially non-culturally informed arts criticism, and kind of going deeper into why you both started in this work and the perspective that you bring and very purposefully bring into this work.

Yasmin: Well, one of the impulses I have, too, is to maybe broaden this, too, and figure out the problem with arts criticism is also the problem with this country and figuring out how white supremacy culture is the thing that actually undergirds a lot of the ways that we’re moving through the world. And even when we’re thinking about culture, it’s not just about race and ethnicity. It’s about how we speak, how we love, what are lived experiences are. So then, if we look at the microcosm of how theatre criticism is replicating those issues, a lot of it is because of the distance we’re trying to have, this mythical objectivity between the way that who we are writing on the page and who we’re witnessing on the stage. So, I think that’s the first issue a lot of the times, is that it’s only been within the last five years that we have been being like, “Actually, subjectivity, being specific about who we are as we’re writing is actually what gives power to the words we’re writing on the stage.”

Arti: I agree with everything Yasmin said, and particularly the thing Yasmin said about using the specificity of your identity and not pretending like there is some invisible line that you can cross where you’re magically unbiased. And I think, as people of the global majority, where our cultural identities are, because of white supremacy, become so centered in how we see ourselves, I think we have a lot easier time doing that. Bringing who we are to our work, bringing who we are to our pieces because that’s the lens that we’ve been taught to see through for better or for worse, right? There is no mythical objectivity. It’s like, “This is who we are.”

Nabra: And how do you navigate, going a little bit deeper into this question, obviously, as Yasmin kind of pointed out, there is so many different identities each of us bring. There’s so much intersectionality within how we’re each viewing a piece of art, [a] piece of theatre, and there’s a big push to have more diverse critics from all kinds of walks of life so that we can better understand, of course, those perspectives from an insider, I guess, point of view. But you’re also bringing up perspectives on why non-white, more diverse critics are kind of crucial to the landscape of arts criticism. Can you talk more about what the benefit of those intersectional lenses brings, especially when it’s not really specifically about your own culture? What approach are you seeing this new generation of art critics bringing that kind of differs from the old guard, if we may?

Arti: To be honest, in one word, it’s empathy. There’s an extended amount of empathy because of the globalized upbringing that I think a younger generation of artist has, right? This ability to identify with someone whose culture is so different, because instead of saying, “I need to see something that looks exactly like my upbringing,” you’re able to find these parallels and because we’ve had to find those parallels our entire life without the accurate representation of what our livelihoods look like. So, for me, it’s because of a globalized society, a greater amount of empathy and an easier access to being empathetic towards other perspectives.

Yasmin: I feel like there’s also a specificity in what we’re able to write about because there’s different things that we clock that are happening on stage that maybe people with different experiences won’t have. And I always try to broaden how we’re thinking about even social locations because it’s not, again, just about race and ethnicity, but there’s queerness. There’s religion. There’s other elements of who we are that we’re going to be witnessing something different than someone else. And our propensity to write about it comes down to how comfortable we are writing in those ways. A lot of my research has to do with knowledge gaps and doing self-reflexive work about our own criticism. So, I’m always questioning, what does it mean for critics to actually self-critique their own writing in the same ways that they’re looking at the stage? What does it mean to actually acknowledge the gaps that I have in my own writing, so I’m not perpetuating the same mistakes?

Or I have curiosity about filling in those gaps, because I’m not here to say that there’s a certain critic that should never, ever, ever be writing again. Well, maybe there are, but I want to have the generosity of heart and some empathy in saying that people can grow. And they can acknowledge where they are faltering and address it, if they’re open to it, because we definitely have a lot of critics that are showing their face on socials or the way that they’re showing up for panels is actually signaling that they’re not open to change and they’re not open to this self-reflexivity that I think would serve the field, rather than continue to decimate it.

Nabra: Marina and I both like, “Yes, let’s talk about this.” I’ve never thought about it in that way, but you’re absolutely right that in reading arts criticism and the critics that kind of have a name, the idea is that they have this kind of hard-line perspective that is exciting to read and will tell people whether or not they should consume this piece of art or what they should think about it. And that kind of very strong voice has become a staple of arts criticism in the past or at least how I’ve seen it. And I’ve never really understood what my problem was with it, but I think you’ve really hit the nail on the head, Yasmin, of it’s this lack of willingness to change or willingness to analyze their own criticism. And it’s not really... I mean, yes, there’s the strong voice, but the problem behind that strong voice is that it doesn’t shift. It doesn’t have room to grow or to change its opinion, really. So, I’m excited about what y’all are bringing into this and this idea of empathy as the key to how to approach criticism. Again, I haven’t seen that in most of the writing that I read and would be incredibly refreshed if that becomes really the main core to arts criticism.

Arti: Something that I think I should bring up, as well, that I think helped me navigate myself into this world is that I actually only review Southwest Asian or Middle Eastern theatre in Chicago. And, as part of that, it’s only because there was no one else there, right? Yasmin was away at grad school for a few years, and there needed to be coverage from this perspective. And it was one of those things where I fell into this work because there’s no one else there, and then I continued it because I realized when Yasmin is in a show, they deserve a review from someone who’s culturally competent. If there’s only one of us, what happens when one of us is actively producing art and then we’re still left in this vacuum of, “Well, there’s no one there to reflect back if we’re being successful in what we’re attempting.” Someone with a culturally competent eye.

So, I think that is something that is really different, and people oftentimes invite me to review shows and I’m very clear, I’m like, “I’m here to serve this specific community because this specific community is deeply underserved.” So, I think that that is something important to mention about being a multihyphenate artist is you can have agency, and I think that a lot of times when you start to add on different types of art forms people are like, “Well, you got to start over. You got to pay your dues. You got to do this, this, and that, this, this, and that.” And that’s like, “Actually, that’s not true.” Right? You can say no, and you can decide, “Hey, actually, I’ve decided to pick up this art form to serve this specific purpose, and that’s it.” And it feels really empowering to be able to do that because it’s not my primary art form.

Yasmin: Yeah, and I would love to plug, too, when I was away, what I was working on is a thesis that’s called Not Your Daddy’s Theatre Criticism: Countering White Supremacy Culture Towards Sustainability. Some long ass title because that’s what they tell us to do, but even so, part of what I was curious about is “What are the solutions to this?” because I feel like a lot of these conversations are not necessarily new, but I am so solution oriented, especially as a triple Aries, thank you. It’s my season right now, and trying to figure out what actually comes next, what can be done. And I think what Arti speaks to is that we need more folks writing, and I think one of the healthiest things that I’ve even found is that figuring out what a cohort model for writing can look like is actually where there’s going to be more success and making sure that those folks are compensated.

So, if we’re thinking about Chicago, it’s not new to us. It was maybe in 2016 or 2017, that Rescripted was founded by Regina Victor and that having a circle of young critics having mentorship was the way. The program was called The Key, and I agree that was part of the key to sustainability is making sure that new folks have the resources and the community to be writing and writing together. And so, I think that there are people that are here and that are ready. I know Arti and I are not the only SWANA artists in Chicago that are doing arts criticism, but it’s about the resources and about the barriers.

Marina: Yes, so much yes to all of that. I just want to go back, just really quickly, to what Arti said about getting rid of the oppressive system of paying your dues and these things that theatre artists are sort of brought up hearing that are just oppressive ways to keep, especially, people of the global majority, in ways that have to come up in a system that is inherently, or has been institutionally, inherently problematic. Yasmin, I’m so glad, because I was hoping that you were going to talk about your thesis work at some point, and you mentioned other work that you’re doing with research. And I was just hoping, could you talk a little bit more about that work, because even just... and if you’re okay with it, Yasmin, we’ll link the abstract of your thesis, because just the abstract itself is so beautiful to read. It feels like several breaths of fresh air all at once. Do you mind talking a little bit more about that work?

Yasmin: Oh, for sure. And I wish it could be a book, but that’s hard to figure out how to make it happen. But even so, the way that I put together a thesis is thinking about… chronologically thinking about the past, the present, and the future. So, a lot of my first chapter is mapping specifically myself as a critic and as a dramaturg and how I came to the work and how there’s actually a legacy of dramaturgs turned critics or critics turned dramaturgs just because of the synergy in that work and a lot of it is because there is a propensity to root ourselves as how we’re looking at something as a witness. And then, in my second chapter, I take up case studies of Chicago about critics writing things, how they’re landing on socials, how they’re landing in the world, and what pushback looks like because I feel like there’s a lot of change and mobilization that comes at points of crisis and big questions.

Throughout there, I’m trying to map, “What is the propensity of a critic to look at their own work and to look at their own writing and change?” So, there’s different kinds of case studies about this critic wrote a review and put it out there and then never talked about it again. There was not necessarily accountability around it; it just landed. But then, we also, in Chicago, have a case study where a critic actually was engaging in the criticism of their criticism and wrote another essay in response to the one that did harm. So already, we’re thinking about possibility models.

And then, in my third chapter is when I’m more specific about what can criticism look like and what does it look like because a lot of white supremacy is also worship of the written page, and we’re very much highlighting what is written as what is final. But there’s so many different multimedia projects that have criticism putting people actually in conversation, and critics actually changing their mind or thinking more deeply when they’re actually in conversation with another critic that witnessed the same thing. So, a lot of it is thinking about what is the sustainability of our field, what are we already doing, what can we keep doing.

Marina: Such rich work. Well, and it sort of leads us into a question we wanted to ask you about, which is the landscape of theatre criticism where you both are, which is Chicago. And you mentioned some of the case studies that you wrote about, and I don’t know if there are any that you both particularly want to engage with here that serve any purposes or even just how you both... Arti, you mentioned that you choose very specific projects to critique because you’re serving particular communities, so anything that you want to tell us about your particular work in Chicago, I think is really useful.

Arti: I’m thinking about this question and, honestly, I’m wondering if I’m informed enough to answer it because it’s such a broad question. And in terms of the landscape of theatre criticism in my community in cities, I’ve also got the double-edged sword of being an actor, so a lot of the times, there are reviews that I don’t read on purpose, right? So, it’s like, “What is the landscape of theatre criticism in my community and city?” From my perspective, it’s monolithic. And not only the monolith of “Who is speaking?” but also the monolith of “Have you participated in art?” Do you know the cost and what it actually takes to actually put this on? Do you have the perspective of someone who’s been in the room? So that you’re not just looking at it from a separatist point of view, but you’re actually, as an audience member, you’re not there to just observe but to be involved as this work comes to life in front of you, right? It’s not a movie, it’s live, and there is an exchange between the audience and the performer, and I think that that, to me, is what I often find missing when I do read reviews. Like, “What was the exchange that you had?” Some of the person affects, some of what Yasmin was talking about earlier, as well. That’s my take on it.

Yasmin: And if we’re thinking about some of the tangibles like our legacy papers, Chicago Tribune and the Sun Times. The Sun Times no longer has a chief critic majority because of some of the controversies that went down in 2017. And even the Tribune is constantly looking… or they are potentially looking for freelancers to be filling more of the theatre section. But if we’re thinking about those as the main two legacies that are writing, those critics are serving a different audience than the other theatre publications that we’re also seeing. So those are considered subscription-based legacy papers. On the other hand, you have an alternative read biweekly, you have the Chicago Reader, which tries to do more capsule reviews, so you’re seeing 300 words on shows and there’s probably maybe 8 to 10 different kinds of freelancers for the Chicago Reader. That is still growing and trying to be more diverse, but they have so much more coverage that they could produce. And it’s not pay walled.

When you’re thinking more about the online criticism that’s happening, we do have Rescripted, which is one of the premiere online journals of Chicago Theater, but what’s compelling there is that everyone that writes for the publication is also an artist. So, they’re speaking to that expertise and that lived experience that Arti is also uplifting as really crucial to some of the ways that we want to be seen as artists. And when we’re thinking about multimedia projects, we do have something called the Dueling Critics, which is kind of like a podcast where two critics are actually debating a show that is happening in Chicago. And so, when we’re thinking about maybe that handful of 4 to 5 different publications or projects, is that enough? Maybe, but also look at the bylines. Look to see who is constantly getting hired to be writing these reviews, and we must acknowledge that we’re also sitting in a pandemic and that has also influenced how much theatre is actually being produced.

I work at the Chicago Reader as their audience engagement manager, so even in thinking about the number of reviews that we have now versus even three months ago, super different. So, I feel like there’s a lot of variables in handling it, too. But even when we’re thinking about who publishes what in Chicago, it’s super easy and for me, fascinating, to find who’s constantly writing on theatre and how often. Because when it comes down to equity, I couldn’t tell you how much the stipends are for writing for the Tribune or the Sun Times because I’ve never written for a legacy paper. That’s not something I’ve been invited to do and not something that I actually feel comfortable pitching, because of how I move as an arts journalist more broadly. But if we’re thinking about Rescripted, those are usually $30 to $50 per review and even the Chicago Reader is somewhere between $150 to $300, depending on if it’s in print or online, so we’re thinking about who can afford to be writing on theatre, who has the time, who has the resources.

Arti: I was just going to say, it just goes back to exactly what you said about barriers to access, right? We would love to have more people writing in this landscape, we would love to have more people of the global majority sharing their voices in this way, but who has the privilege to be able to do that? Yasmin and I have several jobs. You know what I mean? So that just goes to show you who’s able to do that and who’s not.

Yasmin: Yeah, and I never mean to soapbox on precarity because I want to be in this abundance mindset, but these are definitely the tangibles that are blocking folks from being in those spaces.

Nabra: Well, you’ve also touched on the different ways that there is in the world to learn about theatre now outside of these traditional news outlets, like blogs and social media. And so, is that traditional way of consuming art criticism and reviews still important? Should that still be the core of how we approach the future of art criticism or how should it change—how is it changing, do you see? Of course, I think it’s becoming more accessible, but also, you mentioned the element of white supremacy within this worship of the written page. And so, how are the different ways that you’re seeing people innovating within this space of arts criticism making it more accessible and maybe also making it more accessible for the actual critics themselves and emerging critics?

Arti: I honestly love to see the shift of what we’ve already seen of the power going to the people, in terms of anyone being able to share their voice. In terms of social media, something that I’ve just seen happen on my feed is there will be artists in the city, or even nationally, that will write film and theatre reviews, like what they thought about this movie, what they thought about this TV show. And I’ll see that stuff getting reposted and shared around like, “Oh, this is what this playwright thought of this.” “This is what this director thought of this TV or film.” Right? This adjacent type of art form. And that, to me, is so exciting because I love hearing what individual artists who are making this type of work feel about this type of work.

It gives me more insight about who they are personally, back to exactly what Yasmin said about bringing yourself to your writing, and it gives me another perspective for someone who’s not necessarily paid or a professional critic, if you will. And that just seems to me, personally, because of where I come from. I didn’t go to school for this. I didn’t have access to mentorship of any sort of program. I really just tried and did and was grateful that Regina Victor and Rescripted gave me a platform in order to do that. So, for me, it’s just like that. I’m excited to see more reviews coming from people who make the work, and who are involved in the work, and who experience the work, and I’m really interested in writers who see writing as an art form, right? They’re not there for the critique. It’s still written word. It’s still beautiful in that way. It’s still art. And I think that’s something Yasmin does really well, if I do say so myself.

Yasmin: Yeah, I definitely love the idea that that work on socials is happening adjacent, is happening in parallel to the other work that’s happening in newspapers. And for my archivist scholar brain, I do see traditional criticism still as of value because that’s what we know gets archived. That’s the work that we know that we can go back and look to see, “How was this received in this time? What does this mean for the trajectory of this play, this playwright?” So, I see a lot of that more traditional work as a part of historicizing and an archive project, and I’m very curious how we can be doing the same for our other online contemporaries, especially when there’s these gorgeous, beautiful Facebook posts that I see. But then, if someone deletes their account because they don’t want to be in the metaverse anymore, that work gets lost. And that breaks my heart. And even when I was doing a lot of my thesis work, trying to go back into some of the earlier Facebook controversies, pulling those threads or even pulling comments, it’s a whole different kind of labor because it’s work that is ephemeral.

And, in a sense, that is how theatre is, too. It’s ephemeral. It’s not necessarily something that lasts forever. It’s there; then it’s gone. But when we’re thinking about writing and we’re thinking about archiving this work and saving it for future generations, I feel like there is some intentionality that needs to be done about those spaces unless that’s a part of someone’s praxis where they’re like, “The show is ephemeral and so is this Facebook post. Enjoy it while it’s here.” Some of the most beautiful criticism I’ve seen has happened on an Instagram story, and sometimes I screenshot it because I want to keep it. But that’s not what’s supposed to happen in that space.

Arti: I’ll also say, speaking to this medium of a podcast, this is another way in which we can track and write down the progress of arts movements over time, right? And I think that breaking away from the written form can also be great because of how stringent white supremacy has been with prioritizing written forms over oral forms over now we have video, right? Now we have storytelling that does exist in other ways, and I wonder how podcasts get to participate in that, coming down the line, too. So, I think it’s really interesting.

Marina: Well, also just speaking of videos, and I’ve been wondering if there would be a chance to mention this, but Yasmin, you wrote about a piece that, Arti, you did Shukran Bas the video that I loved that will link so that people can watch it, if you haven’t seen it. But Arti, the video, I think that’s such a great example of other ways that work is being made. Maybe you can talk a little bit more about the video and that process.

Arti: Yeah, no, Marina, I’m glad that you saw it as a form of criticism because it totally was. I think satire— in a lot of sense, when you’re creating satire, is a form of criticism, and in this sense, we were using film to point the direction right back at the film and TV and theatre industry. And I was so grateful to have Yasmin there when I was like, “Hey, we’re going to release this story. It’s actually not this singular event,” because part of the issue with movements when they’re not tracked by historians and writers is that people lose track of the impact. And it wasn’t just a music video that was important. We had a couple other events that were surrounding it to help kind of bolster our impact as a community, as a SWANA community in Chicago, because we had been so separated previously.

So to be able to have Yasmin there and to be like, “Hey, can you take a look at this and let me know what you think?” and not only have them say, “Yes,” and be willing to interview me and the other artists involved to get our perspective but to also have the critical eye to pick up on tiny, tiny clips, like two second moments in the video that I don’t think a lot of other people would have. I mean, it was life changing. I felt seen in a way that I hadn’t in so long and in terms of that project that was also my first time writing and directing a short film, so it felt very personal, and it felt very vulnerable. So, to be able to be validated by someone saying, “Hey, I see you in this medium,” it was really impactful, in terms of my trajectory as an artist and now a director. So, thanks, Yasmin.

Yasmin: And it’s so gorgeous and it’s so funny and I’m glad that it exists forever, because it’s such a potent piece of media and criticism, thinking about what representation has historically looked like for us and literally being like, “No. Stop it. We’re not doing this.” And it also speaks to accessibility of that work, too, because at that time, I wasn’t on the ground in Chicago anymore. That is one of the last projects I got wrapped up right before the pandemic anyway, so it’s really lovely to see how work that is still happening live, in some sense, can transcend and still be made accessible by recording it and having your media written about this media that desperately needs to be existing.

Nabra: I also have a question that’s really a question of curiosity for myself and something that I’ve been thinking about a lot, which is: as people who are writing, as SWANA folks who are writing for the SWANA community, how do you balance, I guess, advocacy for the community and kind of uplifting the few SWANA voices that get produced compared to other identities, balance that with criticism, really? I mean, I think about this even just in my casual life, which is when I see a play by a SWANA artist, and I just have lots and lots of problems with it, I generally keep that to myself or only talk about it with other SWANA folks because I want to and need to support those creators as artists, as people who might be developing, as people who got a chance that we never get, and often as my friends and colleagues. But, at the same time, I wonder how do we have criticism and really think deeply about our art when we are holding this responsibility of simply uplifting our art in a time when we still are not very widely represented? How do you both balance that in the work that you do, especially since you’re also artists in Chicago making your own work and are colleagues of the folks that you’re probably writing about?

Arti: This is a really tough question and I’m going to add to it by saying, from my perspective—always from my perspective, but from my perspective there have been two kind of waves of thought that I’ve experienced specifically in Chicago. First wave being like, “We don’t talk shit about our own in public.” That’s one school of thought. Yeah? And then the other school of thought is like, “Wait, if we actually want equity, then don’t we deserve the same type of artistic criticism that all of our other peers would get? And isn’t me coming at it with my identity and with empathy and with my kindness enough to let the criticism fall where it may?” And to be honest, I go back and forth all the time. I don’t have a clear answer for you, and I’ve soft balled some things where I’ve felt differently in person. And there are other times where I’m like, “I’m really going to just say how I feel.” And I don’t have a good answer for you, in terms of how to move forward because it is so complicated.

But what I will say is that, more often than not, I’m leaning towards, “How can we focus on using a review to call in our community?” because understanding that when people do uphold representation that might play into harmful stereotypes that we don’t want to reproduce, that is a form of white supremacy. And if they believe their doing it to help us, that is still a form of white supremacy. Right? So, coming at it with a very gentle view of being like, “You are impacted by this issue, as well, whether or not you’re involved in perpetuating it. You are impacted by it, and you are perpetuating it.” And the empathy that I would want someone to bring to me, if I was unintentionally harming my community, is how I try to go about it.

Yasmin: I cosign so much of that.

Arti: The last thing that I was going to say is that I’ll also try to reference or link other pieces or other research about tropes that I’m talking about, so that it doesn’t come off as opinionated but being like, “Hello. When I experienced this happen in your show, it made me think of this other thing,” right? “It represented this other trope or mimicked this other trope that I didn’t feel comfortable with.” So again, bringing in other scholars to help support your perspective.

Yasmin: I love so much of that, too because I definitely am always trying to lean on the side of rigor and knowing that we deserve to have the same artistic rigor of reviews as any other community, and I actually do credit a lot of Arti’s thinking around this to the way that I’m moving. Because earlier in my career, there were so many times where I was like, “How could this actor say yes to this show if they know that this is how it lands?” And some of the conversations Arti and I have had is like, “They’re trying to make a career for themselves. This is literally one of the first shows that they’ve ever done, and this is who said, “Yes” to them, so that’s the space that they took.”

And, for me, it’s been exercising that generosity, too, because my first inclination is, as dramaturg, of like, “Well, there was a dramaturg on this show, too, how did this, this and this happen,” and then working through the field, there’s still this level of how much can I actually not be a fixer but actually open conversations about the productivity of showcasing certain language, certain patterns, and certain ways of utilizing these shows, too. And recognizing which theatre company is putting this up, and really having an eye on who is at the table, what are the optics of this, what are the resources of this, too, just so you can have a better understanding of how something like this got made. And I really think that’s the arts journalism impulses in me rather than theatre criticism because I think if we’re thinking about, again, that traditional view, is that they don’t want to know about a lot of all of that. They want to know about what they see and how it landed on them. But I have a hard time separating that, and I don’t think it always should be separated, especially when we don’t have as many opportunities in general.

Arti: I love that, and I would love to see more critiques about not just the art, the final product, but how the art was made and holding the company, the organization, in the process responsible for the end product, as well, because it’s all part of it. I love that, Yasmin.

Yasmin: And there is a legacy of that. It’s called embedded criticism. There are white dudes in the 1800s that have been doing that all over Europe, so I’m very curious about different kinds of criticism that have existed for so long, but we drop them. Or we’re not utilizing them in similar ways. I think about this a lot with my students even at the Theatre School, because we’re really trying to figure out what it would mean for students to be writing criticism on students. And, for them, that’s their own artistic community and, if anything, that’s supposed to be a space of learning and experimentation, but they still sometimes have the same curiosities around what harm is being perpetuated.

But we can look to history and the way that people are entering these spaces with different kind of roles to be writing on process. But then, we also have to think about who is that work for because a general public, a general audience, it’s more about how the whatever gets made, I’m losing the metaphor, but it’s very technical. But that’s stuff that we want to be seeing in maybe American Theatre Magazine on a national level, so people know how things get made and what questions that we’re being asked along the way, but then didn’t show up in the end product. That’s what I personally find fascinating.

Marina: Yes, so appreciate the nuance of everything you’ve just said. A question that Nabra and I have been asking different artists is: what is your ideal landscape for theatre? If you could wave a wand, what would theatre look like? And arts criticism in this instance, too, obviously is part of that, but what changes would be made or what would be overarching things that we might see in your idealized world?

Yasmin: I just have a very specific answer because it’s literally the third chapter of my thesis, and I map it through a four-pronged approach that can feel really lofty or whatever. But if I’m going to break some of it down, it’s about some of the conversation we’ve already been talking about. What does mentorship and expanding the forum [look] like? This means that actually putting resources in folks’ hands and then also acknowledging that criticism can function in different ways that are not just writing it down. This also leads to having a cohort model where you’re having a community of folks come together to sometimes even talk about the same show and knowing that publishing maybe multiple reviews from the same publication on something is a way to actually get a breadth of perspectives and knowing that those folks are then compensated fairly for that labor.

And the third thing, figuring out what cultural competency looks like on a personal level, knowing who you are and what you bring to the space and being able to recognize where you might have gaps. Because the way that you can put that in process is my fourth thing, which is developing a reflexive practice, which means interrogating the work that you, as a critic, are producing and knowing where you potentially do wrong or how you can do better. Because if we’re not actively reflecting on what we’re putting out in the world, there’s no way to make it more rigorous, more productive, and just really serve our community and serve our different audiences. Very specific, because I spent two years on this.

Arti: Run it. That’s it. I want to live in Yasmin’s theatre community. That’s it. I want to live and work there and nowhere else. That was so beautifully put.

Nabra: Oh my gosh, yes. I completely agree. That’s such a great way to end this episode. Y’all have really blown my mind, you’re both superstars. I feel like you’ve actually changed the way that I will now approach even just talking about plays, especially SWANA plays. Leading with empathy is just such a great and easy way to shift the way that we’ve been thinking about art criticism, I think in the past, at least myself, as this opinionated thing that tells people what to do. But all of your perspectives have kind of brought nuance and reflection and an intersectional lens and an empathetic lens to even how an everyday person or consumer of art can go about discussing and calling in artists from their own community. So, thank you so, so much for that, it’s been really revolutionary to have you both there, and I’m really excited to continue reading your writing.

Nabra: Agreed a thousand times. Thank you both.

Yasmin: Thank you so much for this space. I always love being in conversation.

Arti: Thank you. Likewise, I feel like I learned so much, so thanks for having me.

Marina: Thank you so much for having tea with us. This has been another episode of Kunafa and Shay. We’re your hosts, Marina and Nabra.

Nabra: This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this series and other HowlRound podcasts in our feed on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you find podcasts.

Marina: Be sure to search HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you loved this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. You can also find a transcript for this episode along with a lot to progressive and disruptive content on howlround.com.

Marina: Have an idea for an exciting podcast, essay, or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your ideas to the commons.

Nabra: We hope you tune in next time. Thank you for joining us on Kunafa and Shay.

Nabra and Marina: Yalla, bye!

Thoughts from the curators

Season 1 of Kunafa and Shay will focus on MENA theatre post-9/11 to today, highlighting contemporary MENA plays and playwrights, spotlighting international community-engaged work in the Arab world, and pondering the present and future of MENA theatre in the United States. Theatre artist Nabra Nelson and MENA theatre scholar Marina J. Bergenstock bring their own perspectives, research, and special guests in order to start a dialogue and encourage further learning and discussion.

The name, Kunafa and Shay, invites you into the discussion in the best way we know how: with complex and delicious sweets like kunafa and perfectly warm tea (or, in Arabic, shay!). Kunafa and Shay is a place to share experiences, ideas, and, sometimes, to engage with our differences.

Kunafa and Shay

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