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The Controversy in Chicago Over the Critical Review of God’s Work

“When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place—we regain a kind of paradise.”Chimamanda Adiche

Chicago’s progressive theater scene shoulders the city’s boundless stories and rarely shies from bearing the weight of controversy. The artistic community welcomes dialogue when booming voices in plays like Collaboraction’s gun violence filled Crime Scene, Bruce Norris’s gentrification saga Clybourne Park and Mary Zimmerman’s controversial The Jungle Book hit the stage. The complicated questions about ownership of stories are willingly explored until the city’s youth author their experiences, as seen in a recent response to Albany Park Theatre Project’s God’s Work. When youth enter the picture, backs break from a single story. So, what gives?

Albany Park Theatre Project’s (APTP) remounted production of God’s Work at the Goodman was composed with equal strokes of joy and heartbreak. The audience is called to witness the story of a brutally abused girl named Rachel and join her in a journey that begins in despair and culminates in redemption. Rachel’s story unfolds through poetic movement and text, brightly painted bodies and Bunraku puppetry, creating an experience ripe with visual metaphors. I visited the Chicago Tribune after seeing the production, expecting to find a glowing review from Chris Jones. I scrolled down to find zero stars.

The first sentence of the review reads: “The Albany Park Theatre Project is not a typical theater for young people.” Jones rightfully acknowledges the special place APTP holds in Chicago’s changing artistic landscape but there is danger in defining the typical in a city filled with millions of individual stories. After this nod to APTP, Jones articulates God’s Work as, “a piece based on a situation of unspeakable domestic horror.” The situation is unspeakable to him, even if the ensemble speaks with bravery and strength. To whom is the story unspeakable if not the storytellers themselves? “I found God's Work almost unbearable to watch,” Jones writes.

Jones says that he would not take a child of twelve or thirteen to see the play. Many Chicago youth growing up on the South and West sides, where the poverty level has recently been docked at 40 to 60 percent by the New York Times census-mapping project, are stronger than they receive credit for. I am inspired by how capable Chicago’s youth are: in their desire to effect change and in their fearlessness to share their stories. The original Rachel was fourteen when she shared hers. Youth witnessing stories of youth provides direct connection through theater. Some may find compassion through witnessing what they will never face, while some in similar situations could believe, if only for a moment, that hope remains possible after destruction.

In the same stretch of reviews, Jones gave Remy Bumppo’s premiere of Our Class, four stars. His headline is, “Powerful, Chicago-style story told of Jewish massacre.” Our Class follows the stories of a group of classmates navigating the horrors of the Holocaust. The characters begin in grade school and the text includes the beating of a classmate, child abuse, torture, violent rape, and mass murder. It is a heavy story, demanding strong shoulders, which in this case Jones willingly provides. He writes that, “The event at the center of the play is, of course, a horror of singular brutality. But the piece understands that complicity is complicated.” The atrocities become labeled as complicated rather than “unspeakable” because of the age of the creators and performers.

Adults performing the stories of youth makes for more comfortable theater, but youth dealing with atrocious acts on stage is much less so. Jones writes of God’s Work, “…at a downtown theater, when a real-life experience has, to some degree, been translated into an artistic experience outsiders pay money to see, there is something about that blending that makes me uncomfortable.” Real life experiences of mass extinction of humans are acceptable theater, but the real life experience of a fourteen-year-old local girl rising from desolation to accomplish the impossible is deemed inappropriate.  

The Goodman’s platform is strong and champions the APTP ensemble members as they speak up in exquisite revolt. Stories break free that would otherwise offend or confront because they are ready to be heard. It is in these powerful moments that we must act to make the assemblage of our city’s stories of its youth bigger, brighter and louder.

In accepting the single story that God’s Work does not belong in a downtown Chicago theater, do we contribute to the silencing of the voices of our youth? I believe God’s Work is just as worthy of embodiment on stage as Our Class or any other current Chicago production, regardless of the age of the ensemble members telling it. In the Our Class review, Jones writes, “It makes you wonder how those who lived through this, or one of the other versions of it, ever found the strength to draw another breath. Had they not, of course, we would not have their story.” This eloquent quote seems equally fitting for God’s Work. I thank APTP deeply for continuing to find the strength to give breath to their stories. We are made better through them and with them.




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Hello All!

These comments have been uplifting and challenging, and I am going to attempt to focus my tumbling thoughts into an overall response to the lively discussion that stemmed from the aftermath of the article. I hope that these difficult subjects continue to be debated in a similar respectful fashion amongst all fantastic theatre communities near and far.

Words are tricky but I stand by describing the response to the review in our community as controversial, in that there was disagreement that stemmed from the article that resulted in heated discourse. Within the first day of the published review, in academic and personal circles, I experienced polarized responses. Not everyone was on the same page, and that is OK.

That being said, the use of the word “censorship” in this discussion is disheartening, as it was notused in my review in any form, nor do I think it is what is happening in Jones' review or the subsequent article. There is a jump from questioning ways in which we can empower or discourage youth’s voices to the physical act of censorship. (This is another conversation entirely, but if you are interested in Chicago’s powers-that-be attempts at actually censoring a youth production check out The Young Fugitive’s production of Cold Summer. http://gozamos.com/2014/01/... and http://www.chicagoreader.co...

My concern with the article was not in the show being deemed “good” or “bad” (and much of thelanguage of the review was supportive of the artistic merit of the production) but in the role that language plays in defining something’s right to exist or belong; the way in which power can faction what constitutes the other. The role of the critic in a theatre hub is to guide potential consumers to exceptional productions that merit being seen to support quality creation. However, liminal ground emerges when reviews are not specifically geared toward that purpose. How is the legitimacy of a production measured and valued? It is challenging to remain open to the insistence that something matters deeply, even if it does not happen to be a reality of one’s personal experience.

I agree with Jones that those that saw the show best understand the nuances of the performance, but I also believe that the social systems at play in relation to youth authored theatre are issues able to be discussed by all. The determination of who decides what belongs on stage and how, has been going on for a long time. With booming progress happening in theatre for young audiences, how does this question translate? Should youth productions be reviewed? The answer cannot be simplified into one review or one article or one show.

One point that I remain in stark opposition to is the idea that the ensemble is at risk in the hands ofAPTP through revisiting personal stories. They are able to share highly personal artifacts from experience specifically because of the safety of the environment. Furthermore, I can only speak to my personal experiences, but in response to the fear of adult voices too strongly shaping these stories, young people are LOUD. I remain inspired by their determination that their voices are heard.

Cheers to thoughtful inquiry and here’s to the future!

I think Mr. Jones review asks a very important ethical question tied to the aesthetics of this company. Is the aesthetic of this piece exploitative? Adults shaped the content - they are the authorial voice here. The child actors were complicit to the vision of the adults, with the adults using a real childhood trauma as content. Is that good? If so, why?

Edris- thank you for your thoughts on this discussion and for your own work in this arena. It is good to be reminded, in the context of the discussion about APTP in Chicago, of Rhodessa's work in SF with The Medea Project. I was also reminded of the Voices of Now youth ensembles at Arena Stage, which often tackle very difficult realities in the lives of their company members. I especially have never forgotten the performance by the ensemble formed around and by children who had suffered the loss of a parent or sibling. Tough stuff for the general audience, but the impact on the young performers, telling their own stories through ensemble-devised theater, was evident to everyone. While the focus of the discussion here has to do with several real questions about young people, tough content, criticism and the marketplace, I am glad to spend a moment thinking about the bright spots that sometimes break through for young people and adults caught in the deepest darkness.

If it has artistic integrity as the reviewer states it does - then it belongs in a "downtown" theater - whoo the levels of discrimination in this thread is astounding! I am glad we seem to have escaped this kind of censorship (yes I said it!) in San Francisco.

What actually gives him the right to discourage this work or any work?! That actually sits squarely within the parameters of censorship. A critique is meant to examine and understand the work within the context of the artform. Definitely, not to promote but to place it in a context for the reader and potential goer. Anyone can have an honest opnion - they are like a... well you know the saying. A critique should be bringing a higher level of understanding than just his honest opinion.

And what is up with the sensitive feelings. This is a place for discussion and as an African American from the Deep South, I would ask that you not throw the word "lynching" around so freely.

Mr. Garvey, I'm sorry that you feel such animosity toward asking a question. Personally, I've already taken issue with the idea of Mr. Jones' review being "controversial" or "censorship", both of which are where any potential shaming lies in this article and subsequent thread. They are both, in my opinion, inappropriate assertions to a critics honest response to a piece. And you are correct, he is perfectly within his rights to discourage this kind of performance. Why is a community then not allowed to ask questions about it? To debate it? At least on my end, what I'm trying to get at is specifically NOT to accuse anyone of anything, not to shame, not to point fingers, but to look at the review, to look at the impact of said review, both intended and unintended, and discuss. Discourse is what drives things forward, and discourse does not mean everyone has to agree. If you feel certain statements have been disrespectful to Chris, all I can do is apologize on my own behalf. Respectful discourse was my goal, which is specifically why I have avoided getting drawn into the "censorship" accusation, and certainly not trying to shame anyone, but rather have a civil debate about potentially discouraging young people telling their stories in theatre. But to also generalize any disagreement or devil's advocacy as blanket shaming also does nothing but shut down productive conversation and idea sharing. We can disagree, and still respectfully discuss WHY we disagree and analyze the facts at hand. I agree that it is not the critics job to promote a show. But, I can have a respectful discussion about the role of journalism in either encouraging or discouraging risk-taking outside of one particular show. Whether it is their right or not is not the issue. The discussion is philosophical.

I agree that discussions on critical technique, and its potential to enable censorship, are things we artists should always have. The price of freedom is vigilance after all. I just don't think an honest reading of Chris's criticism supports the framing of this blog post. I find the way it is framed in the post makes Ms. Greene's argument evidence of the thing she decries. She seems to be looking to censor Mr. Jones by labeling him a censor and rhetorically claiming controversy, fueled by injustice. She does link to Jones's critique but does not acknowledge the cautious hedging Chris practices within it. Ms. Greene seems to create a straw-man to knock down and claim controversy where none exists. Chris Jones acknowledged the empowerment the piece provided the students and respected much of the aesthetic that developed that empowerment. He simply raises an important ethical question to the possibility of child-hood exploitation, and the real damage that can extend from the artistic exploitation of childhood suffering. He asks if there is the probability of distancing an audience from this concern with the aesthetic choices made. His point of view is important.

What is the problem with "selling tickets"? If the show had been free of charge it would have been okay? I would think that the issue in a theatrical review would be its artistic accomplishments. If it is art it gets reviewed. If it is not being promoted as an artistic project then yes. (this is NOT an issue in San Francisco theater where we have Medea Project an Love Balm Project)

Perhaps I spoke/typed too quickly with the box office comment, and I will own that. The issue is really about "[empowering] youth to go to dark and vulnerable places", and how this review may, or may not, have contributed to/discouraged that. How perhaps the review encourages or discourages patrons, donors, artists, etc from supporting this kind of work. The beauty of this debate is that there are major differences in opinion about roles, responsibilities, and impacts, and each opinion has value. Thats why its worth discussing.

Seems to me that the "result" of the work is the empowerment of youth (hopefully all theatre allows for the entrance into dark and vulnerable places), the issue, rather, is whether or not the critique was fair and just to the work. I would posit that it is the critic's job to position the work (bridge the gap of understandin, as it were) for the audience and speak to his artistic merits (which in some small way he did) - rather thank just have an "honest reponse" - anyone can do that. Critics are assumed to have some level of expertise in understanding the work and its relationship to the art form, itself. An honest opinionater does not a critic make.

I agree, you can. The issue is, did this article do that? Or perhaps, potentially, discourage instead of empower? And I get the sense you feel that no, it did not discourage. Cool. But many here feel it did, and thats why its worth debating. Not accusing, not definitively stating, but discussing.

Thank you for opening up this conversation to people like myself who have not been privy to the discussions around your community in Chicago. This post, and even the review which sparked it, raise big questions in many directions. I sense, in Mr Jones' review, a dis-ease with his own reactions to it. He seems caught between his own private discomforts (children, young performers, the horrorific situation underlying the play) and his professional responsibilities. To his credit he seems to proceed with some caution.

I do wonder why he felt required to voice his questions in the form of a review. So much of what he was asking about was intimately personal, almost to the point of over sharing on that level, and the production bore no responsibility for those challenges he faces. And the questions are close to the bone for him- are the children on stage well cared for by the company? - can children bear this weight of the retelling? - would I be more comfortable if adults were playing these roles? -- but they are not the job of the artists. He says as much, but uses the language of a go/don't-go consumer review, which damages the company and sheds no light on his dilemma. This performance triggered him personally and he left his professional role in the experience. I would have loved to read more about that from him.


I overshare regularly with my readers, I fear. They are used to it. And I stand behind every word of the piece being discussed here. To call an honest response "censorship" is, well, not worthy of that term.

i did not leave my professional role and I did not even remotely use the language of a go/don't go consumer review, although I make no apology for such reviews and resent the implied condescension.

These are not private discomforts but professional ones.

I understand the opposing view. This is a complex matter, best understood by this who saw the show and experienced its visual language.

I would correct one thing, though. This was not a zero-star anything. Although we do assign local professional theater productions star ratings to help our readers make their choices, we have never, and will never, assign stars to a show performed by children and young teenagers, in a community context. This was a response, my response, to the show--nothing more, nothing less.

OK. So I will just correct one thing in my reply and then stand by the rest of my response as well, I guess. "Censorship" is not a word that I used, nor do I feel it remotely pertains to the original intent of the review. It was a word tossed into this discussion as a Straw Man to bait folks and it has. I will take you at your word that the nature of this conversation is such that it cannot responsibly be had except between people who saw the work. We will perhaps find a different forum in which to talk about the genuine and productive questions raised in the post.

Agreed. However (and I fully acknowledge that at the end of the day you have no real control over how people interpret what you write), it does appear that it was unclear to many that it was an "unrated" review, rather than a "zero star" review. The clearest "physical" evidence of this is http://www.theatreinchicago..., where in the review round-up, your review was listed as "Not Recommended" as opposed to "Unrated". And the difference that interpretation can make is huge.

While I did not see the production, so as you say cannot engage fully in the conversation as I would like to, having spoken to many colleagues who did see the show, this seemed to a primary interpretation.

Again, you have nothing to do with this, you have no control over how another reader/blogger/poster engages with your review and comes to label your work as a "Not Recommended" review. But clearly it could be and was interpreted like that, and I think thats what the conversation is (or at least should be) about - not attacking or pointing fingers or accusing, but discussing the ways such a review can be taken and looking at the impact that can/did result.

But again, I agree completely that I don't think your article is censorship, and I certainly do not think it is controversial. But it has provoked some vibrant discourse about the interpretation of a critical review and the effects, intended or unintended, that can result. Which is wonderful! Discourse!

Well, I read the review and when all is said and done seems you liked the production. You say All of that is moving and has great aesthetic integrity. And, you acknowledge your discomfort, itdoesn't seem to me a negative review. Discomfort, IMO, is not a bad thing to face in live theater.(with my tongue in my cheek) Isn't Chicago a welcome home to Thomas Bradshaw's work?

"the production bore no responsibility for those challenges he faces" very key statement - this is often the issue with reviews. Is the person equipped to adjudicate? Have they even been exposed to enough kinds of theater or worldviews to understand the production's world - its legitmacy. I am thinking of The Medea Project (critically acclaimed, however) Rhodessa Jones' Theater for Incarcerated Women and even Robert Alexander's Alien Garden about youth gang violence where some responses (not many reviewers thankfully) declared the content to be inappopriate for theater and in one case a reviewer declared that he couldn't care less for these kinds of stories - not in his world so it didn't matter.

Controversy or no, censorship or no, Morgan is calling out something that is being talked about a LOT in Chicago behind the scenes, and it is ABSOLUTELY worth talking about in a forum like this. There are a great number of people who are quite angry about Chris' review, and perhaps rightly so. Jones review, as I understood it, was meant to be "unrated," but instead it was listed in aggregate and other sites as "Not Recommended." And I've heard through the grapevine this did hurt the APTP ticket sales and divert attention away strongly from a risky, brave and gorgeous piece of theatre that challenged both the young people making it and the audience sharing in it.

Maybe its not active censorship, and maybe it isn't "controversial" - I do think those are big labels to put on something like this, and I don't think that is Chris' nature - he genuinely cares about the art too much for that. However, his review COULD have been taken as supportive of the work even if the specific show made him uncomfortable, had he not ended the article with such discouragement. And a critic must realize that to discourage this work, intentionally or not, does have an unfortunate ripple effect on those seeking to empower youth to speak their stories, to go to dark and vulnerable places. Chris' review, I believe unintentionally, takes some of the perceived value (in the eyes of those who depend on his reviews for show selection, of which there are many) away from the work of these young people, and by proxy, away from those who wish to encourage young people to similarly find their voice, no matter how dark or disturbing or personally discomforting. By discouraging this work, a critic discourages 1) those seeking to foster or make the work and, perhaps more importantly, 2) discourages those who might support the creation of such important, essential work.

That is, in my view, the true and sad side effect of the review, and something that needs to be discussed further and in honest terms, which I think Morgan does well.

As Josh Sobel so eloquently demonstrates, without an understanding of the context of a situation in which the use of "controversy" actually does apply, it is easy to reduce it to a simple binary, as I believe you have done here in your reading of the article and subsequent commentary on it. From my perspective, I believe Ms. Greene was attempting to open up the discussion -- both about this situation and the larger questions that arise from it -- rather than reduce it to a mere criticism over one person's review.

Of course, reducing the conversation makes it easier to ignore problems or even simply concerning or complex situations, a decision many of us choose to do when we don't have the time, energy, inclination, or any of an assortment of other reasons for not getting involved or putting our energy into changing the status quo.

Of course, I also don't know the context of your comment. Perhaps you are from Chicago and are well aware of the situation and don't agree with Greene's perception of it.