When Theatrical Critique Harms Progress

Conscious or Unconscious, Critical Bias is Antithetical to Art

Steppenwolf Theatre’s ‘Hir,’ 2017. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

In Taylor Mac’s incredible recent play, Hir, the stereotype of the “typical American family” is subverted by the struggles of an atypical American family confronted by changes to themselves and to society as a whole. Through them, we are forced to take into consideration that we may be taking “normalcy” for granted — how many aspects of our lives are only “normal” because we’ve never thought about challenging “the way things are?”

In theatre spaces across the country, we are seeing the same struggles play out, and the traditional structures are not happy at being challenged.

Not that they ever seem to be.

The fault, dear Brutus, is in a great number of aspects of modern theatrical culture, from administrative and creative hiring practices, to disparities in casting, to the very real, very basic issue of whose stories producers are choosing to bankroll.

Were I to actually decide to tackle the overarching issue of the hold white supremacy and male supremacy have over theatrical forms, I’d be writing a textbook, not an article. Systemic oppression and exclusion is as integrated into the theatre scene as it is into all other aspects of society — just because we all cheered for Hamilton doesn’t mean we get to exempt ourselves from it.

This is a beginning, not the end goal.

One of the places where the systemic struggle is strongest, though, and one important due to its highly public nature, is the field of arts criticism.

Theatre critics can, in many ways, be gatekeepers of the performing arts. Plenty of artists will tell you that they “don’t read reviews,” but then, reviews aren’t really for them, are they? An artist can be interested by the feedback of an informed critic, sure, elated at praise and crushed by criticism, but it’s hardly going to change their performance (one would hope). There’s a reason theatre criticism is considered news: public access.

A good piece of theatre criticism is equal parts visitor’s guide and thematic supplement. Critics often considered to be “at the top of their game” (your Ben Brantley, The New York Times types) have mastered weaving viewing recommendations into companion pieces that discuss, challenge, or elevate the ideological points of the playwright and/or the production.

Theatre critics aren’t the be-all-end-all of a person’s decision to attend a show, but they can play a role in spreading the word about a quality production; or, conversely, warning people away from a bad one.

It stands to reason, with all of this ideology wrapped up in access to the public’s ear, that theatre critics and writers with biases and prejudices all too common in the theatrical realm can present a real problem for work attempting to challenge norms and transgress boundaries.

You know, what theatre tends to do.

This is a massively widespread issue. Theatrical knowledge commons HowlRound posted “A Collective Call Against Critical Bias,” wherein they took a stance against much of the systemic bigotry or oppression I’ve just explored, especially as it applied to the Broadway runs of Lynn Nottage’s Sweat and Paula Vogel’s Indecent.

Of course, as should surprise no one, a challenge to the traditional structures was met with resistance from the traditional structures. It garnered enough defensive reactions (about, among other things, apparently the concept that the patriarchy is oppressive. Quelle suprise) that HowlRound co-founder P. Carl was driven to publish an incredibly insightful article about systemic privilege and power that most definitely exists in the theatre world.

It hardly ends there, though. (If you hadn’t gathered from my frequent use of the word “systemic.”) Out of Philadelphia, we have theatre writer Thom Nichols blasting the Philly theatre scene for its recent “artless radicalization.”

Grant that Nichols doesn’t seem to review a lot of shows, but this hardly makes up for the tired defense of oppressive structures he makes.

“Does every Hamlet or traditionally white Shakespearean character have to be black to prove a point about racism?” Nichols asks, seemingly unaffected by the thought that, I don’t know, maybe people of color just want to do some damn Shakespeare. “Does every single young boy in an Elizabethan play have to be played by a girl, as if to “instruct” the public on some esoteric point about trans issues?”

Who will sing for the poor white male?

Weiss, critic for the Chicago Sun-Times

Nichols’ diatribe echos comments made by recently-controversial Chicago theatre critic Hedy Weiss, who, before getting embroiled in a scandal that led to her denouncement by Steppenwolf, made some comments at a panel discussion arguing that “there are just so many stories about gender, minorities and gays [on Chicago stages], so much so that it is sickening.”

This is all to say that, from coast to coast, there are theatre critics and journalists who genuinely perceived the diversification of theatre to be some fad.

“The delightful avant garde innovations of old have become the standard,” says Nichols. What avant garde innovations, you ask? “a black woman play[ing] Hamlet, or an androgynous actress play[ing] a page boy, or [seeing] love stories with interracial couples.”

To these writers and critics, entrenched as they are in systemically oppressive power structures, representation of “the other” in theatrical spaces was nice for a time, a cute jape and diversion, but now they’re getting tired of these different people who just won’t go away.

Zainab Jah as Hamlet in The Wilma Theatre’s ‘Hamlet,’ 2015.

Critics either don’t seem to believe theatre is supposed to mirror reality, or don’t believe that reality is made up of more than straight, white, cis traditionalists.

Or, most worryingly, both.

If the world of theatre is finally evolving to recognize the reality of peoples too long ignored (and recognizing them in the mainstream, allowing them to infuse into the culture, seeing them as the rule, not the exception), then we must expect our criticism to evolve along with it. Where are the critics of color? The LGBT critics, non-binary critics, non-conforming critics? We need their voices.

We need critics who will see diversity in theatrical spaces for what it is — a reflection of an evolving world and a theatre scene finally catching up to years of growth in diversity — not critics who continue waiting for the “others” to pipe down so they can get back to their Oscar Wilde.

Until we reach critical parity, we’re leaving a chunk of our public outreach to a monolith of systemic oppression. As long as the journalistic public face of theatre is actively fighting diversity and progress, the mirror our art holds up to the world shows a twisted reflection of ongoing bigotry and intolerance.

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