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TBA Online: News & Features: August 2017

Ushering in a New Wave of Theatre Critics

Wednesday, August 2, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: TBA Staff
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by Kim Tran

“More critics need to understand the preconceptions they bring into the work,” says Diep Tran, associate editor of American Theatre Magazine.

Tran is responding to Chicago Sun Times theatre critic Hedy Weiss’s recent review of Antoinette Nwandus play Pass Over at Steppenwolf Theatre Company. In June, Weiss described the depiction of police brutality against African Americans in the play as a simplistic, wholly generic characterization of a racist white cop.Her words drew initial ire and charges of discrimination followed by more structured tactics when a petition signed by nearly 4,000 people called for theatre companies in the region to cease inviting Weiss to shows. Weiss, like the majority of theatre critics at the nation’s leading publications, is white. Invariably, the situation brings-up important questions about race, racism, and criticism.

Diep Tran. Photo by Tiffany Liu.

Weissfailure to acknowledge her own critical framework as shaped by systemic racism is indicative of traditional attitudes. Critics are often assumed to be blank slates; objective mirrors and prisms for taste and talent. But Tran and many others say neutrality is impossible to attain.

Theres no such thing as an unbiased opinion. Theyre an accumulation of our art and our background, says Tran. 

Like all art, theatre both produces and is a byproduct of the world in which it exists. For over nine years, the Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC) has compiled data on minority casting in Broadway. Their study found that in the 2014-2015 season, only 30% of actors hired on Broadway were people of color and just one showThe King and I—“was responsible for contributing over half of all employment for Asian American actors.Such disproportionate representation perpetuates the racial blind spots and implicit bias that linger in the profession.

Takeo Rivera. Photo courtesy of ASUS Journal.

Playwright and performance studies professor Takeo Rivera attributes disparities in criticism in large part to, decades of the theatre not adequately being diverse or actively promoting these types of narratives on a grand stage.Rivera says that despite daunting socio-historical patterns, the embedded nature of racism in artistic endeavors is now common knowledge in such scholarly fields as performance studies. “[It is] only in academic circles where you start asking what are the [race and gender] implications here?he says.

However the artistic community is also taking steps to alter the landscape of theatre criticism to more adequately reflect American society. Diep says this is a step in the right direction. She asserts new critics of color must ascend to a level at which they have influence . . . because they have grappled with those issues [of racism] in their lives.Smaller, independent initiatives are providing platforms for these new voices.

Regina Victor. Photo by Gwendolyn Wiegold.

This June, Regina Victor, a multidisciplinary artist and recent Bay Area transplant to Chicago, and playwright Katherine O'Keefe began Rescripted, a website featuring essays, interviews, and reviews by actors and artists instead of professional critics. Writers for the site are penning pieces that emphasize cultural awarenessand critical engagement.

Victor says whether or not a reviewer has personal experience with a genre impacts their ability to understand its power. They explain, Gem of the Ocean is a play that was really influenced by Afro-mysticism. I was told fairy tales from that same cannon so on the stage, it made sense.

Rescripted offers more range than conventional theatre criticism. In the latest post, Victor writes that last month’s production of The Glass Menagerie at Cal Shakes was “essential for children of color to see” because “within the first five minutes I was envious of all the young people and students who will see this play and never question their place in it.” In another, Monty Cole describes how Weiss’ review of Pass Over causes him to “keep finding myself wanting to shield the actors on stage.” Both depict how different reviews can be when they come from within a community of color: agonizing, liberating, but most of all, personal.

Similarly, Latinx Theatre Commons enhances the profile of Latina/o/x theatre making in part by providing culturally literate and relevant analysis. Latinx Theatre Commons aims to build community through its pieces. From tracing the feminism in Chicana playwright Josefina López’s Simply María or The American Dream to a digital archive of Latinx playwrights, the site seeks to amplify “the visibility of Latina/o/x performance making.” 

Both Rescripted and Latinx Theatre Commons feature writing by those who are frequently marginalized in mainstream theatre. Their presence in the genre is both rare and exemplary of why community based criticism is vital. They originate with authors for whom the stakes are the highest, arguably those for whom the art matters most. 

Victor concludes, We critique from a place of love.

Kim Tran is finishing her Ph.D. in Ethnic Studies and Gender, Women’s & Sexuality Studies at UC Berkeley. She is a contributing writer for Everyday Feminism. Her work has been featured on Vice News, Mic, Vox, and The East Bay Express. Find more of her work at