Dear Goodman Theatre: I Will Not Perform For Hedy Weiss
What follows is the text of a message I sent to The Goodman Theatre last night —
Hello Goodman Theatre Staff and Associates,
My name is Bear Bellinger. For those who don’t know me personally, I am an actor/writer/advocate in the Chicago community and also a Black man. I am a member of the cast of your upcoming New Stages project Lottery Day. I am writing you today on the subject of Hedy Weiss, the Chicago Sun-Times critic who is, again, embroiled in a controversy due to her remarks in a review of Steppenwolf’s most-recent show, Pass Over. I am writing to tell you that I am not comfortable performing with Hedy in an audience to review me. If this is the case, I would ask that you make arrangements to have an understudy go on for that performance. If this precludes our working relationship, I understand your position even if I, vehemently, disagree with it.
In any other profession, at any other job, or if she and I were full-time members of your staff, the sort of language Hedy has used to describe individuals, whether through body shaming or through race and/or ethnicity-based commentary, would have gotten her reprimanded and moved, if not fired. EEOC regulations would require it. Unfortunately, we performers, writers, technicians, directors, SMs, and all of the wonderful folks associated with plays, are considered independent contractors and are therefore not protected by said laws. Legally, our community does not exist as an entity and Hedy is solely an employee of the Sun-Times and, thus, one degree further removed from employment at said theatres. I understand the distinctions within from a legal standpoint. Personally, ethically, I can not abide those technicalities.
Critics are as much a part of the art community as the rest of us. And that community thrives on our ability to come together for a short period of time, with mutual respect, to perform our duties. We do not have the typical structure of a work environment, but that does not, ethically, remove us from the burden of extending the same protections the 1964 Civil Rights Act has attempted to grant to employees since its implementation. We look for a fair, safe, and equitable work environment; one free of discrimination on the basis of gender, sex, race, religion, orientation, age, or disability. To act as if critics are not a part of our arrangement, and therefore absolve ourselves of any blame, is irresponsible to the community we attempt to cultivate and the work in which we participate.
We grant critics access to our shows because our economies depend on one another. Critics can not exist without art to criticize and art does not propagate without the press to promote it. We expect a level of professionalism from every artist that walks through the door; and, if they do not live up to that level of professionalism, we replace them. It happens during the interview process, it happens during the rehearsal process, and, occasionally, it even happens during the run of a show. It is time to do so with a critic who has long not lived up to that same standard.
What does this have to do with my refusal to perform for Hedy? The only economy an actor has in this business is their body. I get to choose where and when I perform and for whom. I will not participate in an arrangement that continues the degradation of PoC on a platform as large as the Sun-Times. It would be irresponsible of me as an ally and advocate and, personally, dangerous for me as a Black man. I do not believe I should be made to humanize characters and issues for someone who will turn around and use my art to advocate, without research or data, for racist policies and measures that will directly affect my life. When someone uses their platform, as a critic, to advocate for racial profiling, despite the wide breadth of scientific evidence that details its ineffectiveness, rather than talk about the merits of the production and the performances, they are advocating for more unwarranted police interactions which could lead to my incarceration or death. The fact that she has continued to do this with no evidence, no retractions, and no apologies, despite the constant backlash of education, fury, and pleading for her understanding, leads me to believe she is willfully putting people who look like me in danger. Your continued insistence on putting these at-risk communities in front of her is a party to that endangerment and is directly contradictory to your stated desire to promote a diverse and inclusive environment for artistic expression that represents the city in which you reside and I can not participate in that.
I hope this message finds you receptive and understanding to my predicament and that if you have any questions or issues and would like to follow up, you reach out for clarification. I will be making this message public shortly. I believe that a public message allows for my community to hold me accountable for my actions and shows that we can, personally, take steps, with what little agency we have, to rectify these situations. Transparency grants strength to others who may want to take action but feel impotent.
I appreciate your reading my concerns and look forward to a dialogue about your response.
*Update* A representative from the theatre responded that the production of Lottery Day is not up for critical review due to its nature as a workshop and, therefore, there should be no issue with Hedy attending. I recognize this loophole takes some of the pressing nature away from this statement, but I stand by my words and intentions nonetheless and hope both the Goodman Theatre and the community as a whole will continue to reexamine Hedy’s place among us. Using loopholes to sidestep accountability still does not exonerate us from our moral imperatives.