Deep anger generated by the theatre reviews of Chicago Sun-Times critic Hedy Weiss is nothing new. But the scale of the reaction to one of her most recent pieces, about the Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over, has resulted in a level of partisan debate which seems greater than any prior incident.
Nwandu’s play is reportedly a riff on Waiting for Godot, but with two young black men standing in for Didi and Gogo in a modern urban setting. In her review, Weiss included the following, which is by no means the whole of what many have taken exception to:
To be sure, no one can argue with the fact that this city (and many others throughout the country) has a problem with the use of deadly police force against African-Americans. But, for all the many and varied causes we know so well, much of the lion’s share of the violence is perpetrated within the community itself. Nwandu’s simplistic, wholly generic characterisation of a racist white cop (clearly meant to indict all white cops) is wrong-headed and self-defeating. Just look at news reports about recent shootings (on the lakefront, on the new River Walk, in Woodlawn) and you will see the look of relief when the police arrive on the scene.
Comments such as these are seen as similar with past racially charged remarks by Weiss, which include labelling graffiti taggers as terrorists in one review and coming out in favour of the police practice known as racial profiling in another (that passage was subsequently removed from online versions of Weiss’ piece). Exacerbating the situation was that another review of Pass Over, by a much lesser known critic, who inexplicably deployed the n-word in her own piece, since re-edited and the subject of two apologies by the writer.
In the wake of the Pass Over review, a group of independent Chicago theatre artists created the Chicago Theatre Accountability Coalition, posting a Change.org petition which read, in part:
To be clear, we are not calling for a ban on Ms Weiss attending performances. We are simply requesting that she not be given a ticket for free. If she wishes to present her damaging views, we ask that she pay for the privilege. Those of us who believe your action is necessary would greatly appreciate your support in our effort to make sure that the integrity of our community is preserved.
Independently of the CTAC, actor Bear Bellinger, a consistent advocate for artists of colour in Chicago and beyond, wrote to the Goodman Theatre regarding his current employment in a workshop there, and shared his communication online:
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 humanise 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.
In a statement posted to Facebook, Steppenwolf Theatre wrote that it would be preparing an official institutional response to Weiss. But in advance of that, and in the immediate wake of the reviews, it stated:
Some of the critical responses from this work have been shocking – not because of the actual critique of the art, but in the way that the responses revealed at best the ignorance of the critic and at worst, a racial bias that, when captured in print, wounded many people of colour in this community and their allies, and served as a horrendous reminder of how far we still have to come in terms of racial equity in this community. We denounce the viewpoints expressed in some of these reviews as they fail to acknowledge the very systemic racism that Pass Over addresses directly.
In a particularly vivid response to the uproar, an at times condescending editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune (the Sun-Times has been silent), defending Weiss and criticism.
Artists don’t have to like the reviews, or even read them, but they have to suck it up and take them, assuming they are delivered in good faith, as longtime critic Weiss does. Complain too much, theater people, and you look like crybabies, especially if you also accept praise.
These various quotes are only the tip of the iceberg of commentary, pro and con on this issue. But what it brings to the fore are core questions for the arts, for journalism, for conversations about race and ethnicity. The Tribune’s very rebuke fails to engage with Weiss’s repeated racially charged remarks in her body of work, so good faith is not as easily presumed as they suggest.
There is a guaranteed right to freedom of the press and freedom of speech in the US constitution. This is foundational. Whether anyone likes what Weiss writes or not, she is working at the behest of her newspaper and answers only to her editors and publisher; her publisher has the absolute right to disseminate her opinions so long as they don’t in some way cross over into being criminal. I believe very strongly in those rights.
But at the same time, many theatres are trying to address systemic racism in their practices, just as progressive activists are working vigorously to address that deep racial and ethnic inequality in society at large. So for artists committed to those goals who find their creative work viewed through a frequently dismissive perspective when it comes to social justice, who see a lack of empathy when it comes to racial topics, which I believe Weiss has displayed, it is unquestionably not just troubling, but painful. Whether the work at hand is liked or disliked, is not the true issue.
As we have seen political polarisation play out in ugly ways about Julius Caesar in New York’s Central Park, no one benefits from dialogue over the arts when it echoes that same extreme opposition. While critics may be first responsible to their own opinions, secondly to their audiences and perhaps then to those whom they write about, they are – I hope – in some fashion engaged in a dialogue. For that dialogue to have any benefit to any of the various constituencies involved, it is not helped when it starts from a place of disdain for fundamental beliefs. This strikes me as essential for the health not only of the arts, but of arts journalism and criticism especially, all of which face ongoing challenges. Hopefully, they can face them together.