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.

'Come From Away' allows theatergoers to register their dissent against what’s happening in Washington, at least in their own minds…but I couldn’t help harboring some resentment towards the show and its admirers.

actor headshot collage
Cultivating Critics of Color: A Panel Discussion featuring Coya Paz, Loy Webb, Ike Holter, and a mentor/mentee from the Cindy Bandle Goodman Youth Critics Program. Composite by Piper Thomassen.

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 Rescriptedthat 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. 

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Coming up with Rescripted, the new outlet for critics, is a terrific idea. I'm hoping in its creation there's an implicit acknowledgement not just that there is insufficient diversity among the ranks of professional critics, but that it is increasingly difficult for ANY critic to make a living at it. The answer, it seems to me, is not just to try to knock down the (ever dwindling) doors that exist, but to create new rooms. This of course begs the question: Are you looking for a way for Rescripted to pay its contributors?

I'm with this article on the whole, but can you talk more about your reading that Weiss "seemed surprised" by the many different literary and cultural influences on Zacarías' play? I didn't hear a tone of surprise in her description, and I'm curious to know if I'm missing something.

Dear Lily,

Good to hear from you. I read Hedy's tone as surprised because she goes straight from speaking about the play being set in the world of telenovelas, to being surprised that this art form would have influences from around the world (see: "Yet its influences are every bit as global in nature as the current viewership for telenovelas."). You will note that every "global" influence referenced is white, even going so far as to credit American soap operas with giving the play its dramatic twist, and the only Latinx influence is "chili pepper heat". I chose the word surprised because as I read the article, in the tone it seemed as though Hedy Weiss was surprised and delighted to find such relatable elements in a story about a telenovela, that would allow it to translate to the white audience for which she is writing. I do not think if this were a play based on American soap operas directed by a white male that so much emphasis would be placed on the Western dramatic influences of Brecht or the Greeks, they would be expected elements of the play. But when non-white Karen Zacarías employs these same techniques in a play with telenovela influence, Weiss felt it was worth noting that it's still in line with Euro-centric expectations of theatre. I hope this gives you more insight into my POV, thanks for engaging.

Regina

Thanks for explaining! I think I see what you mean a little more now. I was thinking that if I were reviewing this show, I could see myself wanting to mention all the influences, too. But I kind of glossed over the contrast highlighted by "yet." So I really appreciate this! This might help me interrogate my own biases with a lil more rigor. :)

Since I can't make the panel discussion today I'm posting this here:

Given that "nurturing" alone probably won't change things much at the major publications (the ones which affect ticket sales and artist reputations the most), I suggest considering "going nuclear" (to use a popular phrase I despise) and refuse to give free tickets to white reviewers who have recently written articles (some would say condescending and/or one-sided) such as "Why Is Chicago Theater STILL So White?"

If enough theaters do this, the publication may decide that "what's good for the goose is good for the gander" and replace the white reviewer with a more diverse one... something which the reviewer, based on their writings, will no doubt heartily approve of.

(Note: I am not an attorney. Please check the legality of this option before deciding whether to try it.)

My email to info@rescripted.org just bounced. Here's what I wrote:

Hi.

I would like to follow Rescripted. Is there an email list to be on, a Facebook page to like, a Facebook group to join, a blog to subscribe to...?

Thanks, and best wishes. I liked the statement on your home page a lot.

John

Might you expand on the impetus to emphasize consent in reviewing? As the performing arts editor for a publication in a large Midwestern city, it's uncommon for us to review productions that we weren't solicited to review; when we make the first overture, it's quite rare that someone says no. (The only examples of "No" that come to mind are sold-out shows and works in development where more journalistic, rather than critical, reporting is requested.)

Speaking only for my publication, we do get a lot of requests for specific reviewers, which I'm told is partly a function of the director or marketing/PR staff liking the critic's way of writing a review or their having reviewed a similar genre recently. By policy, I pass such requests to the staff reviewer to see if they want to accept the assignment, which might involve juggling prior reservations or be unworkable due to other reasons.

Re: the specific example cited, I believe that Paz's remarks refer to Max Maller's review of the play. Here, I think it's important to note that Maller's review was the only review online (and, to date, the only one in Google News) until the indoor production of the play opened two months later, at which point it did attract more coverage. While of course one generally wants more coverage than less, this suggests that larger problem of how to get press coverage in a shrinking traditional media environment. Is this something that you feel impacted things?

I will be curious to see what recommendations your panel comes up with. Besides diversifying the pool of critics (which I strongly support), I hope that you address the problems related to small word limits. Muller's review clocks in at just under 150 words, which is a common limit for magazine reviews that tends to leave a lot of details that writers might want to include on the cutting room floor...

Basil ConsidinePerforming Arts EditorTwin Cities Arts Reader

Hola Basil- yes, referring to that review. But it is important for me to note that I explicitly asked the Reader NOT to review the summer version of the show- it was a piece in progress, which we changed after every performance. I have empathy for and concern about the shrinking resources devoted to criticism- in addition to my work as an artist and Artistic Director, I am a professor who studies newspaper archives and arts economies, so I think reviews matter as a record of what has been.

Ah, thank you for clarifying; that was a breach of professional etiquette, and your reaction makes perfect sense with that context. Off-hand, the only "good" exception that comes to my mind is something like Ben Brantley's review of Spiderman: Turn off the Dark during previews (http://www.nytimes.com/2011..., where the show producers were charging $300 for tickets already, and had been doing so for some time.

Coya, I'm very sad about your comments regarding vetting the socioeconomic background of the person reviewing your work. I absolutely want more diverse critics and criticism, which we can accomplish without pairing critics to work based on ethnicity. Are you really suggesting that only certain people should be able to critique your work based on their socioeconomic/ethnic background? Don't you want to reach an audience which may be unfamiliar with your world?

I think you are misreading my critique, which is excerpted from a longer Facebook post linked to above. I think anyone has the right to review anything they want. I don't think "only" people of a certain race/socioeconomic background should review my work. My frustration is that with the three exceptions cited in my post, only people of a certain race (white) and economic background (upper/middle class) DO. I am asking for more range and more self-reflection from the people who are positioned as cultural gate-keepers. All of us know what we know based on lived experience and/or research. I am suggesting that I don't always trust critics to have done the work of asking whether bias shapes their evaluation, asking what they do or do not know about the cultural and aesthetic underpinnings in my work.

I did not get this from your FB post. Your post seems fairly straightforward to me, perhaps too straightforward. You list a bunch of criteria you'd like the critic to meet. I think your comments here clarify that they DON'T necessarily have to meet these criteria, but that would be your preference.

Your FB is very straightforward about white middle class critics being incapable of or too biased to understand your work. I don't know how to feel about this. So I'll thank you for your response and think.

I've thought a lot about your comments. Now I'm even sadder.

You assume all white critics are biased and want to preemptively correct this by judging them *before* they've done anything. And you assume someone of your own background will feel the way you feel. You cannot know either of these things. It's impossible. You are judging people not on their actions but on their potential actions...based on race. This is illiberal. Even if the privileged critics are white, you cannot judge them on race. Or class. You can only judge people on their actions. Sorry.

Are we really going to respond to fascism by segragating *ourselves*?

We need more critics of color, because they are part of OUR culture. We don't need to then segragate them. And to what end? Can men not critique women? Can whites review blacks?

You are judging--no, pre-judging--people based on the actions of *other people of their race/class*.

You do not get to control who reviews your work based on race. That is wrong. I can't believe I have to say this and that I'm afraid to say it.