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

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.


  1. Charles Giuliano on July 16, 2020 at 10:33 am

    These demands for change are occurring during a time when for the most part there is no live theatre. This interlude is best used for introspection and systemic change both individual and institutional. Many of these points were made by the late August Wilson particularly in response to demeaning attacks on black theatre from Robert Brustein then of American Repertory Theater. It’s notable that the current ART artistic director Diane Paulus has been called out for racism. Demands for change are being framed in the context of a pervasive social justice movement. Made more palpable by a racist president playing to a white supremacist base. We applaud the utopian concepts put forth. It is likely we will see increments immediately and ever more with time. The goal is social justice theater with the caveat that it is produced in a commercial context. The economics will depend on the quality of work and ability to attract a paid audience. It will take talent, commitment, and patience to create great theater. We must start now.

    • Bill Marx on July 16, 2020 at 11:47 am

      Good to hear from you, Charles. Yes, this interlude should be about “introspection and systemic change both individual and institutional.” Also a time for critics to think about what demands they need to make of theater so that it will come back strong — and with some connection with reality.

      It will also show us who wants to be part of what will be theater’s challenging future and those who do not. Some “theater artists” — seeing the writing on the wall — will be moving onto greener, more profitable pastures. Am I the only one to suspect that Paulus’ people have been talking to Disney + about bringing her zipped up, Broadway bound production of 1776 to glorious streaming life? A follow-up to Hamilton that, if marketed right, will reap big bucks.

  2. Robert Israel on July 16, 2020 at 2:15 pm

    If we’re going to insist on quality and diversity (and we should), what’s needed is someone to pick up where the late Arthur Friedman left off with his “Bouquets and Brickbats,” wherein he called out egregious behaviors and turned his sharp eye onto critics, too, quoting snippets from their very badly written reviews. This did not rid the scene of dunderheads, but it at least exposed them.

    (The late Friedman was more of a Dean of Boston Theater Critics more than the taciturn Elliot Norton ever was).

    I also miss Michael Feingold (, who challenged theaters to reach out to communities of color and cease and desist predictable programming of the tried and true.

    That’s the sweet spot for this publication by offering readers a challenge, less slapdash, and a vision for what theater could be, can be, and hopefully will be.

  3. charles Giuliano on July 16, 2020 at 2:36 pm

    Friedman called attention to himself while Norton focused on theatre. While Friedman was entertaining the reviews of Norton set the bar for excellence in criticism. He was indeed the dean and as such is missed more than a a gadfly like Friedman. Consider that there are no theater awards in memory of Arthur Friedman.

  4. Robert Israel on July 16, 2020 at 7:33 pm

    It’s not fair to compare/contrast one talented writer over another. Norton had his bona fides, that’s true. Charles has made a valid point.

    I would refer readers to Caldwell Titcomb’s eloquent Friedman obituary published in Playbill — — and let them arrive at their own assessments.

  5. Bill Marx on July 17, 2020 at 9:55 am

    I was a friend of Arthur’s and learned a lot about writing theater criticism from him. Let me respond to Charles’ specific points and leave it at that.

    First, the finest theater critics were egotists and understandably so: their criticism reflects themselves — their personalities, ideas, passions, and convictions, etc. Hazlitt, Shaw, Tynan, Nathan, Bentley (who is still around at the age of 103), Richard Gilman, Gordon Rogoff and others embraced their subjectivity and poured it into their criticism, which is about articulating values. We need dissenters and gadflies who undercut the status quo. We always have more than enough bloodless boosters. In fact, it is the “neutral” observers of theater who make the worse critics — the publicist/ consumer guides, who support theater by flicking their thumbs up and down.

    Second, having an award named after you is a matter of prestige, conventionality, longevity, and bucks. It has nothing to do with the quality of the work. To my knowledge, Hazlitt, Shaw, and others have not inspired theater prizes in their name. George Jean Nathan was one of America’s best theater critics and did have an award named after him — because he established and financed it himself. Awards are part of the business of the theater — they have little to do with excellence. Take a look at the Tony Awards and Oscars …

    • Bill Marx on July 18, 2020 at 5:08 pm

      Addendum. Well, I have stumbled on another award for stage criticism named after a theater reviewer: Canada’s Nathan Cohen Award For Excellence in Critical Writing. Cohen sounds like a much tougher and enlightened critic than Elliot Norton — see his Wiki page. He was, at least for a while, a member of the Communist Party, reviewing for its newspaper and for Vochenblatt, a Yiddish communist weekly newspaper, as editor of its English-language section writing political articles, book reviews, and then theater reviews. Fascinating …

      Below is material from the Canadian Theatre Critics Association website. I like how, unlike America’s George Jean Nathan Award, there are a variety of prizes.

      Nathan Cohen (1923-1971) is often regarded as Canada’s preeminent theatre critic. Cohen wrote for the Toronto Star from 1959 to 1971, where he reviewed plays across the country and internationally, and was also a critic and host for CBC Radio and Television.

      Known for his tough-minded and insightful criticism, Cohen played a key role in raising professional standards for Canadian theatre during the postwar era. The CTCA’s major awards for critical writing are named in his honour and are given out every two years.

      There are three awards:

      Outstanding Review: This award celebrates outstanding achievement in a written or verbal review of a particular production or productions by a Canada-based writer published within the qualifying time period, including elements of description, analysis, and a qualitative judgement of the production.

      Outstanding Critical Essay: This award celebrates outstanding achievement in a piece of critical writing by a Canada-based writer outside of the traditional review format. This may include features, interviews, trend pieces, editorials, and article series (up to a maximum of 2,500 words cumulatively) written from a critical perspective. If you are unsure whether a piece is eligible for submission, please contact the CTCA.

      Outstanding Emerging Critic: This award celebrates outstanding achievement by a Canada-based writer who has been practicing theatre criticism for less than three years, either professionally, non-professionally, or in a training context. This award includes a posting as CTCA Critic in Residence at Intermission Magazine and the opportunity to publish reviews and long-form pieces for the publication, under the mentorship of Senior Editor Hayley Malouin. This award is open to applicants with a CTCA Student Membership.

      All entries must have been published in a newspaper, journal, magazine, book, or on a website. Each award carries a cash prize and includes a framed award certificate.

  6. […] “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?” – Arts Fuse […]

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