Cultural Microaggressions in Theatre Reviews

A Call for Dialogue

“It is curious that Ropes…possesses no Latino flavor or content.”—Michael Sommers’ New York Times review of Ropes by Barbara Colio at Two River Theater

It’s unfortunate—very unfortunate—that in 2016 cultural microaggressions such as this can be found in theatre reviews.

Latina/os are people from vastly different cultures, realities, and experiences. To say that something is or is not Latina/o is an attempt to flatten a deeply layered cultural group.

Unintentional or not, cultural microaggressions in reviews should be called out and examined for the harm they cause to a cultural community and to the field of theatrical criticism. Michael Sommers’ musing that Ropes has “no Latino flavor or content” is part of a larger pattern seen in American theatre criticism in which the reviewer imposes their own mistaken expectations onto an artist of color (see the highlighted sections in: Jeffrey Gantz on Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them by A. Rey Pamatmat, Charles Isherwood on Mala Hierba by Tanya Saracho and Destiny of Desire by Karen Zacarías, and Charles McNulty on Lydia by Octavio Solis). Such reviews suggest that, for instance, playwrights can only write about culturally specific issues or have characters that fit into the reviewer’s assumptions about that cultural community, of which they are not a part.

We, the members of the Latina/o Theatre Commons, are dedicated to redefining the narrative of American Theatre—to creating and supporting plays that represent the varied and multidimensional communities that make up this country on our stages. We are also committed to defining for ourselves what it means to be Latina/o—to demonstrate the breadth of cultural experiences within our community. This is why we are beginning a dialogue in response to this review.

Latina/os are people from vastly different cultures, realities, and experiences. To say that something is or is not Latina/o is an attempt to flatten a deeply layered cultural group.

We are glad that reviewers are coming to see our shows. But we hope they come with an open mind about what it means to be Latina/o.

There is no singular Latina/o experience, nor is there a litmus test that identifies a person as Latina/o. Our cultural community has a vast spectrum of experiences which span from recent immigrants to those who have been in the US for multiple generations. Some of us grew up speaking Spanish, some of us grew up speaking Portuguese, some of us grew up speaking English, some of us grew up speaking indigenous languages. Others grew up speaking a combination of the four. Some of us only speak one of those languages. Others speak all.

Some of us create plays about our cultural identities. Some of us do not.

The fact is, we write about everything. We write about love, about astronomy, about the past, about the future, about coming out, about chasing our dreams and failing spectacularly.

Ropes is a play about family, about siblings. Perhaps Two River Theater included this play in its festival of new Latina/o work in order to make a point—to redefine what is Latina/o, to illustrate to audiences and reviewers alike that Latina/o playwrights can write about any subject.

three actors in a panel
Gabriel Gutiérrez (Prince), Varín Ayala (Paul) and Luis Moreno (Presley) in Ropes at Two River Theater. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

We are glad that reviewers are coming to see our shows. But we hope they come with an open mind about what it means to be Latina/o. We ask that reviewers watch our plays without expectations about what a Latina/o play should be.

To call for a Latina/o play to have more “Latino flavor” is an act of exoticization. Latina/os are not exotic. We are not a flavor. We are human beings. We are Americans.

We write this article to begin a dialogue about thoughtful theatre criticism. We believe we should all strive to do better work as artists and as those who examine artistic work for the larger public.

Further reading:

The Latina/o Theatre Commons Steering Committee 

Christopher Acebo | Associate Artistic Director
Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Ashland, OR

Luis Alfaro | Playwright
Los Angeles, CA

Emily Aguilar Thomas | Artist, Educator, Scholar
Austin, TX

Roy Antonio Arauz | Freelance Director, Producer
Seattle, WA

Kevin Becerra | Producer
Boston, MA

Trevor Boffone, Ph.D.
Department of Hispanic Studies | University of Houston
Houston, TX

Rose Cano | Co-founder and Artistic Director
eSe Teatro
Seattle, WA

José Carrasquillo | Freelance Director
GALA Hispanic Theatre
Washington, DC

Juliette Carrillo | Freelance Director and Playwright
Cornerstone Theater Company
Los Angeles, CA

Marissa Chibas | Head of Duende CalArts
CalArts Theater School Faculty | CalArts Center for New Performance
TCG Fox Fellow in Distinguished Achievement
Los Angeles, CA

Sandra Delgado | Actor, Playwright, Producer
Chicago, IL

Georgina Escobar | Playwright
New York, NY & Ciudad Juàrez, Chihuahua

Evelina Fernandez | Playwright / Actor | TCG Fox Foundation Fellow
Latino Theater Company / Los Angeles Theatre Center
Los Angeles, CA

Courtney Flores | Costume Designer
San Leandro, CA

Amparo Garcia-Crow | Playwright, Director, Actor
Host/founder: THE LIVING ROOM: Storytime for Grownups
Austin, TX

Tony Garcia | Executive Artistic Director
Su Teatro Cultural and Performing Arts Center
Denver, CO

Nancy García Loza | Playwright / Producer 
ALTA Chicago - Alliance of Latino Theater Artists
Chicago, IL 

Regina Garcia | Scenic Designer
USA829, IL

Isaac Gomez | Playwright, Dramaturg, & Literary Manager
Victory Gardens Theater
Chicago, IL

Brian Eugenio Herrera, Ph.D. | Assistant Professor
Lewis Center for the Arts | Princeton University
Princeton, NJ

Jorge A. Huerta, Ph.D. | Chancellor’s Associates Professor of Theatre, Emeritus
Department of Theatre and Dance | University of California San Diego
Adjunct Professor of Theater | Occidental College
San Diego, CA

Armando Huipe
Arts Administrator
Los Angeles, CA

Daniel Jáquez | Interim Artistic Director
Milagro Theatre
Portland, OR

Abel Lopez |Associate Producing Director
GALA Hispanic Theatre
Washington, DC

Tiffany Lopez | Professor & Dramaturg
Riverside, CA

David Lozano | Executive Artistic Director
Cara Mía Theatre Co.
Dallas, TX

Teresa Marrero | Professor, Latina/o and Latin American Theater
University of North Texas  | Critic, Theater Jones
Dallas, TX

Rebecca Martinez | Director / Actor
Ensemble Member, Sojourn Theatre | Member, INTAR’s Unit52
New York, New York

Irma Mayorga |Ph.D., M.F.A., scholar and theater-maker | Assistant Professor of Theater
Dartmouth College
Hanover, NH

Alexandra Meda | Artistic Director
Teatro Luna
Chicago, IL & Los Angeles, CA

David Mendizábal | Producing Artistic Leader
The Movement Theatre Company
Harlem, NY

Beto O’Byrne | Playwright, Co-Founder
Radical Evolution
New York, NY

Marisela Treviño Orta | Iowa Playwrights Workshop MFA playwright
Iowa City, IA

Jacob G. Padron | Artistic Director
The Sol Project
New York, NY

Marc David Pinate | Producing Director
Boderlands Theater | Tucson, AZ

Lisa Portes, Director | Head of Directing
The Theatre School at DePaul University
Chicago, IL

Tlaloc Rivas | Director & Playwright | Assistant Professor of Theatre
The University of Iowa
Iowa City, IA

Beatriz J. Rizk | Ph.D., Scholar and Literary Consultant
Teatro Avante, International Hispanic Theatre Festival of Miami, Tratro Prometeo, Miami-Dade College
Miami, FL

Anthony Rodriguez | Producing Artistic Director
Aurora Theatre/Teatro Aurora
Lawrenceville, GA

Chantal Rodriguez, Ph.D. | Programming Director 
Latino Theater Company/Los Angeles Theatre Center (LATC)
Los Angeles, CA

Catherine María Rodríguez | Dramaturg
New Haven, CT

Diane Rodriguez | Associate Artistic Director
Center Theatre Group
Los Angeles, CA

Elaine Romero | Playwright| Playwright-in-Residence, Arizona Theatre Company | Resident Playwright, Chicago Dramatists
Tucson, AZ & Chicago, IL

Olga Sanchez | Artistic Director Emerita, Milagro | Graduate Teaching Fellow University of Oregon
Portland and Eugene, OR

Mario Ernesto Sanchez | Producing Artistic Director
Teatro Avante / International Hispanic Theatre Festival of Miami
Miami, FL

Paola Sanchez Abreu |Actor
Chicago, IL

Kinan Valdez l Producing Artistic Director
el teatro campesino
San Juan Bautista, CA

Clyde Valentín | Director
Ignite/Arts Dallas
A Center for People, Purpose + Place
SMU Meadows School of the Arts
Dallas, TX

Jose Luis Valenzuela | Artistic Director, Latino Theater Company/LATC
Distinguished Professor, UCLA School of Theater, Film & Television
Los Angeles, CA

Tiffany Vega | General Manager
Hi-ARTS, New York, NY

Laurie Woolery | Director
New York, NY

Jecamah M. Ybañez | Director and Producer
Washington, D.C.

Karen Zacarias | Playwright
Washington, D.C.

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The New York Times is unfit to line my birdcage. I try to learn what I can from all criticism,even from uneducated critics. Adelante!/Forward!

Do we need to keep track of all microaggressions and shoddy reviews? Maybe establish a database if everyone keeps track and contributes to it? WOW that would be a powerful resource, and I mean for all people of color... Like Marisela said in the Twitter feed, you can't argue with numbers or hard data. We could likewise, keep track of critics who do a good job of being culturally sensitive.

I'm very pleased to see this article, and very much hope a dialogue can begin. I've thought about the question of diversity in theater reviewing circles for some time. As one of the few non-white critics writing about Boston theater, I've wondered how the lack of diversity among the critic community impacts the commentary on culturally-focused/subversive/daring plays. I agree with the comments below that this does not mean white critics should back off writing about Latino/a, or any other shows; but if I have to read another review that uses the phrase "melting pot" or "telenovela" non-ironically, I think I'm going to scream.

It would also help if there were diversity among not only the critics themselves, but the editorials staffs of the publications in question. The Times culture desk has no Black or Latino critics or editors. So when these microaggressions are written in the first place, there's little diversity in the staff whose job it is to vet and publish them.

Yes! Thank you for this. No one is asking white reviewers to keep their opinions to themselves, only to be alive to the possibility that they may not be the keepers of the last word on representations of other culture because as you so clearly say, there is no last word. A little humility would go a long way. And "Latino flavor"?? Was Michael Sommers looking for a meal but by accident find himself in a theater?

Yes, exactly. It might be micro if the critic is saying it directly to the theatre or playwright or pubbing it in their personal blog, but this is not the case here. It's institutionalized racism for an edited publication or website, particularly for a national one such as the New York Times, and I would expect the editors of the newspaper of record to do better than this.

My dear colleagues, thank you for what you have written with such grace. You are beyond generous here. There is nothing "micro" about these aggressions. I can feel the fruit being stacked on my head every time the captains of cuchi-cuchi come to town. I'm glad the time has come for the reviewers to be reviewed.