Critical/Theater Commentary: Slapping Sleeping Media Outlets A “Woke”
By Bill Marx
Taking action on even a modest number of these suggestions will undoubtedly shake up the current puerility of much of American theater criticism.
An article in the July 10 issue of the New York Times fired a serious shot across the bow of professional American stages. “A coalition of theater artists,” writes “known by the title of its first statement, ‘We See You, White American Theater,’ has posted online a 29-page set of demands that, if adopted, would amount to a sweeping restructuring of the theater ecosystem in America.” It is about time … the revolution has arrived. I pray.
There are plenty of thoughtful salvos in this document (whose authors choose to be anonymous) that should be heeded by the white theatrical powers-that-be. Though it will most likely be ignored, given the magnitude of change the writers are demanding, particularly the price of alienating white audiences who are comfortable with our current (mostly) uninspired fare. Still, this may be a time when meaningful transformation is a possibility. Broadway will be moribund for the near future, perhaps toppled from its musical amusement park heights forever; the politics of branding the arts an “economic powerhouse” are running aground, and then there is the overwhelming energy of Black Lives Matter. Perhaps there is an opportunity to sweep the dead wood and fig leaves of faux liberal enlightenment into the dustbin of history. (Or at least off the stage.)
In these demands we can glimpse what post-COVID theater might be like. Bad habits may be broken. Theater companies large and small will be weaned off the conservative commercial values of Broadway, freed of the timidity of white theater artists and audiences who are interested in seeing shows that assert their rectitude. Enough stage works that chronicle families under pressure. Where are the innovative scripts that explore thorny issues of race, corruption, income inequality, starvation, gender, global warming, philosophy, metaphysics? Troupes should mount theater that stimulates rather than sedates, at least in the Boston area. As I wrote in an earlier piece, “A Modest Proposal — Boston Theaters, Junk Your Seasons!”:
I have been reviewing theater around Boston since the ’80s. I know all too well what rich, privileged, “liberal” white people will shell out to see on stage. It is mired in the domestic, the safe, and the antique: time for something different. If they want to thrive rather than languish, Boston’s theaters should be inspired by the social/political turmoil around them: they should draw on activist neighborhood voices, take a chance on the unconventional, break free of the domination of New York profitability.
What I want to do in this column is post the demands made in the document from Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC ), specifically those aimed at the practice and organization of stage criticism in the big homogenized media — and add a few comments, mostly cheerleading. Taking action on even a modest number of these suggestions will undoubtedly shake up the current puerility of much of American theater criticism.
Theatre criticism for BIPOC productions, performers and theatres must be written through the lens of anti-racism. If press outlets cannot train their white writers to use an anti-racist lens, we demand that they not review BIPOC productions until they contract BIPOC critics.
1)We demand that theatre institutions and commercial producers invest in critic training programs and fellowships for BIPOC critics,
* With 5% or greater contribution from theatre budgets to allot for this training with BIPOC Critic Training organizations and/or consultants.
*With 15% or greater contribution from prominent press outlets, including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Time Out NY, The Washington Post, New York Magazine and Chicago Tribune, among others, to allot for this training with BIPOC Critic Training organizations and/or consultants.
2)We demand that prominent press outlets divest from salaried positions for critical review and feature writing, and invest in contract-based positions that are filled with at least 50% BIPOC writers,
* As in the example of The New York Review of Books — where the perspective of critical review is broadened by its commitment to a roster of rotating contract-based writers.
* Including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Time Out NY, The Washington Post, New York Magazine, Chicago Tribune and other influential press.
3)We demand commercial theatre producers and theatre institutions divest from buying ads in trades that do not have 50% BIPOC feature writers and BIPOC critics.
* We expect this action to be taken within the timeline of 1.5 years from the release of these demands.
* This includes The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Time Out NY, The Washington Post, New York Magazine, Chicago Tribune and other influential press.
4)We demand that theatres invest in independent media run by BIPOC journalists, including
* HiringBIPOC marketing and PR agents for all shows (including work featuring BIPOC artists).
*Buying ads in independent BIPOC press outlets and other press that have BIPOC journalists and critics.
* Giving exclusive features to BIPOC journalists and media outlets.
5) We demand that BIPOC press be present at ALL artists’ work in the theatre (including work featuring BIPOC artists).
*Recognize that the gaze of the media is disproportionately white and male, and that even non-BIPOC artists are being reduced to this limited lens on their work.
*Pull quotes from BIPOC journalists (and properly credit them for the quote).
*Provide priority and premium seating for BIPOC critics and journalists at ALL shows and productions.
*Provide invitations for BIPOC critics and journalists at ALL opening night performances for Broadway, Off-Broadway, and in the Regions.
*Limit current critics to single tickets and not pairs, thereby opening up the opportunity for more BIPOC media presence at ALL shows.
6)We demand the protection and indemnity of all BIPOC journalists and critics who promote accountability of their parent press contractors and employers.
*There must be no retaliation against BIPOC journalists and writers who stand up for anti-racist practices while holding staff positions at all press institutions.
*There must be no retaliation against BIPOC artists and institutions who stand up and call out racist practices in reviews, features, ads, etc., from all press institutions.
*This includes The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Time Out NY, The Washington Post, New York Magazine, Chicago Tribune and ALL other press engaged in the theatre journalism circuit
Theater criticism written through the lens of anti-racism? Boston media has a long way to go. Diane Paulus, the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater, was recently called out as a racist on YouTube (almost 400,000 views) by Witness Uganda creator Griffin Matthews. A news report in the Boston Globe and a mention in an ARTERY feature — that has been about it in terms of local outrage, discussion, cries of complaint. No major stage critic in the area has dared to speak out about a white figure this powerful, rich, and connected — who is also the winner of an Elliot Norton Award for Sustained Excellence. We have had Paulus’s apology. As time goes by, all will be forgotten (and thus forgiven, that is the way things work around here). Does anyone honestly believe that if Boston had theater critics of color it would go down this gutlessly?
A few comments on numbered items:
1) The issue of training critics is crucial. Because of debilitating cutbacks in arts sections in newspapers and magazines, there are no places for young reviewers to learn the craft from older hands. I teach arts criticism at Boston University and would love to learn as much as I can about the critic programs and fellowships arranged for BIPOC critics. Perhaps the set-up has its flaws — but it helpfully acknowledges that reviewers need training, regarding their sensitivity to race, gender, and other issues as well as how to write a quality review. And, from what I can tell, this training will not be about instilling institutional or commercial loyalty — these reviewers will call productions as they see them, with skepticism regarding the political and aesthetic aims of the white theater companies under consideration. Here is how Elizabeth Méndez Berry and Chi-hui Yang put the prospect in a recent New York Times commentary:
We need a rigorous, rollicking culture coverage that’s uncoupled from class and credentials. Mainstream and independent outlets must pay critics a living wage and reject business models that don’t. Outlets led by people of color should get the venture capital and philanthropic support they have always deserved but rarely received.
We should move away from anointing a talented two or three critics of color and toward kaleidoscopic ecosystems of ideas and taste
Better, the letter seems to suggest that BIPOC critics will be making DEMANDS, that they will go beyond simply accepting what theaters produce, content to flash thumbs up or down. Critics should insist that companies put on material that reflects the concerns of a diverse artistic community and audience. Theater that reflects the real world, that challenges and provokes rather than mollycoddles and soothes. I have tried to do that in some of my reviews/ commentaries, as in my recent column asking why our theater companies (criminally) are staging nothing on climate change. Critics should speak out, demand change, register dissent from the white bread status quo. May BIPOC critics come in and break up theater’s collusion with marketing strategies whose goal is to assuage consumers.
2) Aside from the New York area, removing salaried stage reviewers is a redundant demand. The Boston Globe has pretty well eliminated its freelance arts critics, which means that their salaried staff members are critiquing just about everything. So the paper’s perspectives are anything but … “kaleidoscopic.” The notion of fielding a team of freelance critics of various backgrounds, trained by newspapers, local universities, or BIPOC, is terrific. The more criticism the better! Why bother with the lily-livered verdicts (manufactured to be blurbs) about local Boston theater via WBUR, WGBH, The Boston Globe, or the rest of the all-white Boston Theater Critics Association if you had an alternative? Wouldn’t it be interesting to get the lowdown from a diverse group of reviewers made up of people of color who represent communities around Boston? No more of the same old same old bland — these new critics may just be learning, but at least they are not boosters.
I do not have high hopes the Boston Globe will field a team of diverse freelance stage critics. It would take imagination and energy — and the paper is not displaying much of a commitment to its thinning arts section. Yes, the publication and its writers are inspired by Black Lives Matter. But when it comes down to making money, well, priorities change drastically and hypocrisy reigns. I pointed this out in a November piece on the paper’s hardball negotiations with the Boston Newspaper Guild, the union that represents the Globe’s editorial employees:
Globe management’s campaign to whittle down the staff (no doubt to bring in lower paid newbies, ripe for further exploitation) is bearing fruit: 12 people in the newsroom have given notice or left since the negotiations began. Five of them are women of color.
Note: No progress in the negotiations have been made — it has been 18 months since the last contract expired. It would be interesting to know how many more writers of color have left the Boston Globe since November.
3, 4, 5) Yes — theaters should demand more social responsibility from local big media and invest in independent newspapers and magazines. The latter will need the financial support to find, train, and hire a diverse round-up of arts critics. Regarding issues of retribution, big media in the Boston area has practiced the silent treatment for the decades I have been here — the best way to minimize dissent is to ignore it. Calling out those who object to the way things are brings attention to voices of color and their sympathizers. As long as the press doesn’t publicly admit there’s a problem with diversity in their arts staff nothing need be done: in this way, media and white theater companies work together to maintain the status quo.
For years I have been offering my services as well as those of some of the critics who write regularly for the Arts Fuse. I regularly work with students of color in my Boston University class on writing arts criticism. I (along with other Arts Fuse critics) would love to work with a diverse group of fledgling critics with the goal of posting their arts reviews on the magazine. I am getting to an age when I am eager to pass on what I have learned about the craft of writing arts criticism and commentaries. Those who are interested, please contact me at email@example.com.
At one of my classes at Boston University a couple of years ago, a local Black stage performer admitted what it took to get a diverse theater company off the ground: “Rich white people have the money. We have to tell them what they want to hear.” “We See You, White American Theater” suggests that the kowtowing may no longer be necessary — people of color are making strong, stinging, and honest demands for fairness and inclusion, for the clout to make real economic and artistic decisions. Enough of the earnest Facebook confabs about young artists of the future; cut back on the deeply felt protestations of sympathy for Black Lives Matter. It is time for action rather than marketing strategies, for revamping the theatrical ecosystem, for tossing out the stale lineup of plays and players, for kicking the homogenizing delusions of Broadway to the curb. White American theaters are adept at paying lip-service to change — at howling around and around and around. Underneath all the “radical” medicinal talk, of course, sits realpolitik: crucial decisions are being made by the same old privileged, image-savvy power-brokers behind the scenes.
Allow me to bring up my beloved Henrik Ibsen, who wrote kick-ass plays in the late 19th century that spoke truth to power. Like Ibsen’s Nora, the country’s diverse theater practitioners — Indigenous, Black, and People of Color — might be about to slam the door on White American Theater. What kind of theater will these stage artists produce once they stop telling the well-heeled (and the audiences they cultivate) what they want to hear? I suspect that these visions will be inspired by the spirit of James Baldwin: whites’ racism was “invented in order to safeguard their purity, [it] has made of them criminals and monsters, and it is destroying them.” These plays will speak uncomfortable truths to the privileged about their monstrousness: it will be post-COVID-19 theater, filled with the conflicts we face as we dig out of the wreckage left by the virus and confront the catastrophe that is global warming. It will be the kind of theater that matters, deeply, to the health of art and society. It will be the kind of stage work that a “kaleidoscopic” assemblage of critics would love to evaluate, analyze, celebrate, and argue about.
Bill Marx is the Editor-in-chief of the Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and the Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created the Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.