The Need for Cultivating Theatre Critics of Color
This article was written by Tanuja Jagernauth and Regina Victor, who are both on staff at a professional writing center called Chicago Dramatists. Together, they are curating a conversation and action panel called “Cultivating Critics of Color” at Chicago Dramatists on April 8 at 2 p.m. to combat the issues raised in this piece.
A theatre practitioner of color realizes early on that there are several gatekeepers in any institution. A gatekeeper can be defined as a person who controls the creative processes or hiring in a company. An artistic director chooses the plays produced, and the directors to pair with them, while a casting director decides which actors are employed on the stage. These are obvious examples, but there is another sort of gatekeeper whose influence heavily determines who works in theatre, which shows sell out or flounder, and even who gets funding. These individuals are known as theatre critics.
In the past thirty years, the range and scope of American theatre has diversified, and yet most full-time critics in America are predominantly white. When theatremakers of color create art that seeks to prefigure the world we wish to live in, being reviewed by someone entrenched in a white supremacist hetero-patriarchal, capitalist gaze is counterproductive. Being reviewed by someone who is not able to meet our art where it is at is problematic.
The conversation about cultivating critics of color in theatre is necessarily a conversation about building power for theatremakers of color, centering the consent and agency of theatremakers of color, and the acknowledging the challenges faced by theatremakers of color when they strive to create art beyond a colonial gaze.
Many white critics share this inexplicable phenomenon of writing about artists of color and describing their work in terms of cultural foods.
Recently, Karen Zacarías opened a new play called Destiny of Desire at the Goodman Theatre. Hedy Weiss of Chicago’s Sun Times seemed surprised to walk into a Latinx show inspired by telenovelas that contained dramatic structures used by the Greeks, Shakespeare, and Brecht—odd when you consider that Karen Zacarias holds a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from Boston University. This is exactly what I would expect from an artist with such stellar academic training. This statement that the piece contains all of these complexities of Euro-centric white people, ends with the quote: “spice the whole thing with some chili pepper heat…” Many white critics share this inexplicable phenomenon of writing about artists of color and describing their work in terms of cultural foods. In a review of Nandita Shenoy’s Washer/Dryer reviewed by Stage Scene LA, a “kumquat” and “jasmine rice” are referenced for no reason at all. It suggests a limitation to perceive the culture beyond what you can consume from it.
Last August, playwright Coya Paz wrote an illuminating response to a review of her piece 100 Hauntings at Free Street Theater, which was penned by a recent graduate from the University of Chicago. In her response, Paz details the many limitations of the current state of criticism in Chicago theatre and puts out a call for more critics of color in theatre. Paz writes:
Critics get to be selective about which shows they choose to review. I wish companies could as well. Like, if someone wants to review my show, I could ask: Are you from Chicago? How long have you lived here? What communities do you live and work in? How familiar are you with the cultural politics of being “a person of difference” in Chicago? Have you ever set foot in a jail? How about a neighborhood that takes three buses to get there from where you live? How often do you see work by POC/immigrant people? If you are a college grad, did you take any classes on African-American theatre? Latinx theatre? Do you know what a griot is?
Being reviewed by someone who chooses to wield their power as a critic to effectively shut down, or scorn process-driven art is hegemonic and well-deserving of push back by theatremakers of color. Chris Jones, who received quite a bit of push back for his review of This is Modern Art stated to American Theatre: “I don’t reject the notion that I have a limited view. Obviously, I am who I am. Anybody in my job is one person, one identity.”
Should the power of reviewing a play—an act that massively affects ticket sales, and forever inks the history of the public perception of the play—be something that is owned by one person, with one identity? To quote Coya Paz speaking on Chicago: “It is 100% my experience that the reviewers writing for mainstream newspapers in this city fundamentally do not understand the ‘given circumstances’ of life in this city for most of us.” With the support of Meghan Beals at Chicago Dramatists, our panel “Cultivating Critics of Color” seeks to deepen the conversation around representation of critics of color in Chicago theatre, and answer Paz’s call to action.
Tanuja Jagernauth: Therefore, we ask: How do we create a system of theatre criticism by and for theatremakers of color, which honors their consent and agency? Given the inherent power of reviews to make/break shows in a city saturated by storefront theatre, what would it look like for theatremakers of color to be reviewed by those they consent to? And how can we bring more critics of color into a system of criticism that reflects the white supremacy of the theatre industry? I look forward to addressing these issues in the years to come and am grateful for the opportunity to begin doing so at Chicago Dramatists.
Regina Victor: Now that we are aware of the problem, it is time for us to take action as an industry. This was the impetus for the upcoming panel Tanuja and I are co-curating; it will feature Ike Holter (playwright), Coya Paz (mentioned above), and Loy Webb (critic/playwright). This is also why I’m beginning a writing platform called Rescripted that will launch later this year, for artists and aspiring critics to review shows they are passionate about. As Diep Tran says in their remarks on criticism, critics need a place to grow and learn to write, and there are woefully few places willing to take a chance on new writers. Rescripted will serve as a platform where writers can speak from their individual perspectives about why a show is artistically engaging or worthy of support, as well as a chance for those who do not often get heard to share their writings on the state of our industry. It is my and Tanuja’s hope that these combined actions will spur much needed conversation and change around critical reviewing in American theatre.