In The UK and US, Bias Infects Theatre Reviews

June 22nd, 2015 § 12 comments

“You can’t draw sweet water from a foul well,” critic Brooks Atkinson wrote of his initial reaction to the musical Pal Joey. I don’t know whether Christopher Hart of The Sunday Times in London knows this famous quote, but it certainly seems to summarize his approach to reviewing the London premiere of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s The Motherfucker With The Hat, which one can safely say is light years more profane than the Rodgers and Hart musical.

Alec Newman, Ricardo Chavira & Yul Vázquez in The Motherfucker With The Hat at the National Theatre

Alec Newman, Ricardo Chavira & Yul Vázquez in The Motherfucker With The Hat at the National Theatre

“A desperately boring play,” “an absolute stinker of a play,” “untrammelled by such boring bourgeois virtues as self-restraint or good manners,” “turgid tripe,” and “a pile of steaming offal,” are among the phrases Hart deploys about Guirgis’s Hat. While I happen to not agree with him (and admittedly I saw the Broadway production, not the one on at the National Theatre), he is entitled to these opinions. It may not be particularly nuanced criticism, but it’s his reaction. There are other British critics with opposing views (The Guardian and The Independent), and some who agree (Daily Mail), so there’s no consensus among his colleagues. But within his flaying of the play, Hart reveals classist, racist and nationalist sentiments that, however honestly he may be expressing them, prove why he is unable to assess the play on its own terms, empathizing with its flawed characters, as any good critic should endeavor to do.

Take this example: “Like the white working class in this country, the PRs in America have picked up a lot of black patois.” Even allowing for differences in language between England and the U.S., referring to residents of Puerto Rico and “the PRs” is patently offensive, and also hopelessly out of date, all at once. The statement also suggests that Puerto Ricans are in some way foreign, when the island itself has been part of America for more than a century; it’s perhaps akin to saying “the Welsh in Great Britain” as if they’re alien. When he parses “black patois” as the difference between saying “ax instead of ask,” Hart presents himself as Henry Higgins of American pronunciations, which I strongly suspect he picked up from watching American television and film, without any real understanding of racial culture or linguistics here – and he generalizes condescendingly about a huge swath of the British populace for good measure.

Hart also refers to the “very brief entertainment to be had in trying to work out” the ethnic background of the character Veronica, first musing that she might be “mixed race African American” but acknowledging her as Puerto Rican “when her boyfriend calls her his ‘little taino mamacita’.” I don’t know why he was fixated on this issue, presumably based on a parsing of the skin color of the actress in the role, especially since the play provided him with the answer (though the same problem has afflicted U.S. critics encountering Puerto Rican characters as well). Would that he were more focused on the character and story. He briefly describes the plot as being about “one Veronica, who lives in a scuzzy apartment off Times Square, snorts coke and sleeps around. Oh, and she shouts a lot.” In point of the fact, the play is an ensemble piece, and if any one character dominates, it’s Jackie, the ex-con struggling to fight his addictions and set his life straight.

After going off on a tear about the play’s profanity, Hart makes a comment about the play’s dialogue, saying, “A lot of it is ass-centred, in that distinctive American way.” As an American, I have to say that I’m unfamiliar with our bum-centric obsession, outside of certain pop and rap songs, even if Meghan Trainor is all about that bass. But hey, I’ve only lived here my whole life, and spent 13 of those years living and working in New York, a melting pot of culture and idiom. What do I know?

I don’t happen to read Hart with any regularity, but my colleague at The Stage, Mark Shenton, has noted his tendency to antagonistic hyperbole in the past, having called Hart out for separate reviews of Cabaret and Bent which both seem puritanical and, in the latter case, homophobic. While I peruse a number of UK papers online, both via subscription and free access, even my limited exposure to Hart’s rhetoric suggests that The Sunday Times is an outlet whose paywall I shall happily leave unbreached.

I was actually going to shrug off the ugliness of the Hat review, but only about an hour after I read it, I came across some letters to the editor in The Boston Globe, responding to a review of A. Rey Pamatmat’s Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them at Company One Theatre. While I don’t think the critic in this case, Jeffrey Gantz, was trying to be inflammatory (as I’m fairly certain Hart was), he revealed his own biases in seemingly casual remarks. Noting that two of the characters are Filipino-American, he wrote:

They make the occasional reference to their favorite Filipino dishes, but I wish more of their culture was on display, and it seems odd that they have no racial problems at school.

Maria Jan Carreon and Gideon Bautista in Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them at Company One Theatre

Maria Jan Carreon and Gideon Bautista in Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them at Company One Theatre

Not every character with a specific racial or ethnic origin need demonstrate it for our consumption on stage; it may not be germane to the play or perhaps the characters created by Pamatmat are more steeped in American culture than Filipino. The statement is the equivalent of saying about me, were I a character, that though I mention matzoh ball soup and pastrami, it would be nice if I spoke more Yiddish, wore a yarmulke, or waxed rhapsodic about my bar mitzvah. My grandparents were all immigrants to the U.S., so I’m only second generation American, not so far removed from another culture and schooled at length in my religion, but I don’t constantly remind people of those facts.

As for not experiencing intolerance at school, Gantz must have a singular idea of what every young person who is not white experiences on a daily basis. That’s not to say that there isn’t ugliness and ignorance directed at people of color far too regularly at every level of American life, but perhaps that isn’t germane to the story Pamatmat wants to tell or part of the personal experience he draws upon (he’s from Michigan, incidentally). It’s not as if “racial problems” for students of color are an absolute rule of dramaturgy that must be obeyed.

That said, it’s ironic that Gantz criticizes the play for taking on “easy targets, notably bigotry and bad parents.” The fraught relationship between parents and children has been the fodder of drama since the Greeks, and it seems an endlessly revelatory subject; as for bigotry, if it is perceived as an “easy” subject, then perhaps Gantz, despite wishing “racial problems” on the characters, has no real understanding of the complexity of race in America and the many forms bigotry can take, enough to fuel 1,000 plays and playwrights or more. But he’s complaining that Pamatmat hasn’t written the play that Gantz wants to see, rather than assessing the one that was written.

I can’t speak to the general editorial slant of The Sunday Times, so while Hart’s recent rant may be in keeping with the paper’s character, I don’t think the implicit racial commentary of Gantz’s review is consistent with the social perspective of The Boston Globe. That leads me to wonder, as I have before, what role editors play when racial bias appears in reviews, such as in a Chicago Sun-Times review that appeared to endorse racial profiling. Yes, these reviews are each expressions of one person’s opinion, but they are also, by default, opinions which are tacitly endorsed by the paper itself. Reading these reviews just after following reports from the Americans in the Arts and Theatre Communications Group conferences, which demonstrated a genuine desire on the part of arts institutions to address diversity and inclusion, I worry that if the arbiters of art continue to judge work based on retrograde social views, it will only slow progress in the field that, as it is, has already been too long in coming.

 Howard Sherman is director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School College of Performing Arts School of Drama and senior strategy consultant at the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts.


Print page

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

  • David Goldsmith

    I have first-hand experience of virulent anti-semitism at the hands of white academic British theatre critics of a certain age.

  • neldogg77

    Howard, thank you for being an ally and bringing this to everyone’s attention. This less than coded racism is exactly what the TCG Conference (and it’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Institute) are fighting against.

  • tj850

    Thank you for critiquing the critics. Some has to do it. I am a black actress based in Boston who recently performed in a new play about three female friends. Despite the fact that this was a first production a new work a Boston reviewer had this to say about my character.
    “The character is so amorphous it is difficult to figure out if Jones
    was cast “non-traditionally” — that is, a black person playing a
    character who could just as well be white. Or is it that Sam is a black
    person who only has white friends? If so, why is it that she never once
    hints at any of the experiences of race that even affluent, educated,
    African-Americans might share when speaking frankly with their closest

    These kinds of comments perpetuate the idea that actors of color can only tell stories about race and ethnicity or can only be cast in racially explicit roles. White is the default and therefore any POC on stage must be “non-traditionally” cast when portraying a universal story.

  • Dolores Quintana

    I’m in a play about a Mexican legend currently and not only have LA critics/blogs not been able to write the facts correctly, they’ve spelled the (Spanish) name of the play wrong in tweets and claimed the entire play is in Spanish (only half of it is), but one blogger, I won’t give him the title of critic – he hasn’t earned it, took offense that part of the play was in Spanish and then proceeded to insult most of the rest of it. That same blogger is also very Pro 99 and sent by the owner of the blog who is also very Pro 99 and made sure to personally mock my performance (I was a vocal opponent of the Pro 99 movement and their candidate for AEA Western VP). I’m sure that’s a total coincidence. Many people were scared to stand up to the Pro 99 movement, they feared being penalized or blacklisted in theatre in Los Angeles. I guess I know why they were afraid now. I do thank you for pointing this out, Mr. Sherman. Someone has to. Otherwise, the insular world of theatre can continue to keep out POC, different cultures, and other opinions to justify their lack of diversity and keep control of the medium.

  • I have been in two shows in the last year (I’m in Seattle) in which my black cast mates have been mentioned for their “african-american accent.” WHAT IS THAT, EVEN? They speak the same standard-American English — it just shows how the reviewers can’t even listen to a non-white actor without trying to find something different in them, even when it’s not there.

  • This piece from HowlRound adds yet more dimension to the conversation:

  • Leonard Jacobs

    This sentence — “Yes, these reviews are each expressions of one person’s opinion, but they are also, by default, opinions which are tacitly endorsed by the paper itself.” — is deeply misleading, Howard. Reviews are expressions of one person’s opinion, true, but I am unaware of any circumstances in the history of journalism in which cultural reviews are specifically understood to represent the views of publishers and their editorial boards. To suggest, for example, that Ben Brantley’s reviews in The New York Times represent the deeply held beliefs of the Times’ editorial board — and are therefore tacitly endorsed by Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. — is really quite a stretch. To stay with this example for a moment, surely you remember when the Times would run alternative Sunday theatre reviews. It did so back in the day precisely because the Chief Drama Critic’s reviews, however powerful or not (or biased or not) at the time, represented that critic’s point of view and not the tacit endorsement of the entirety of The New York Times. It is also important to make a distinction between endorsement and support. If Hedy Weiss should write a review that is, shall we say, not exactly liberal in its attitude toward “the other,” and if a firestorm should result from the publication of that review, the newspaper does not endorse the review if it chooses to stand behind its critic. It’s merely endorsing the right of their critic to write what she believes. You may argue that these are distinctions without differences, but that would be a dangerous game, and signal a fundamental misunderstanding of both criticism and journalism.

  • Angela Weaver

    As an African-American MFA playwriting student, I heard white classmates (playwrights and dramaturgs) regularly denigrate African-American theatre that dealt with African-American history and issues as being “simplistic”. But when I decided to write plays that weren’t about African-American issues per se, I was told that I should as there weren’t enough African-American playwrights addressing the African-American experience. It seemed an impossible Catch-22, hence one of the reasons why I gave up on the idea of playwriting as a profession.

  • Christopher Ehlers
  • Scott Claus

    I really appreciated this article. I’ve been thinking about how bias seems to have infected
    reviews since my show got caught in the middle of a crossfire debate over
    website Bitter Lemons soliciting for paid reviews (my Fringe Fest show was the
    first one they reviewed, and the peculiar review for my show was quoted in Mr. Sherman’s
    article on the subject in June)
    but that is another topic.

    More to the point is the content of the reviews. I accepted
    comp requests to my show from a series of reviewers whom I’d never heard of and
    did not meet at my shows. The cost
    of comping these reviewers was around $200 in lost revenue as it turns out,
    considering each of my shows sold out in advance, meaning I could have sold
    those places to a paying customer. Live and learn, I guess.

    But as the article above suggests, my show was simply not the
    show these reviewers wanted to see (in one case a reviewer had previously stated, “I don’t
    like musicals!” to which I’d have offered if I could have, “Then don’t to go to
    them!”); they used review space, and my money, to write about my show
    from that bias. At the least, the
    things they wrote seemed at odds with the reactions we got from a show that,
    lukewarm reviews or no, was selling out every performance and causing ovations
    and excited comments (and donations) from satisfied audience members. It wasn’t that the reviews were
    so out of line, it’s just that, considering the show was popular, well-received
    and well attended the opinions of the reviewers were simply **not
    accurate** so what value did they hold? I offer this Youtube video as evidence if anyone is
    curious as to the kinds of comments we “paid” for (in comps, at least):

    I choose to believe most writers who review accept the
    valuable job of a good critic: to
    expose, offer insight and try to encourage or discourage the public from making
    decisions about what entertainment to engage in from a valuable professional or
    expert position and without personal bias. Or maybe it’s just an issue of “free speech” again.

    I like opinions, and enjoy a good bitchy review, but “I
    don’t like musicals” (or “I wish there had been more of this or less of that”) isn’t even an opinion, after all. My suspicion is that the
    concept of the traditional review might be on the wane, which is a shame, but when I
    do my next show I’ll be inclined to respond to critic comp requests with a
    polite “no thank you, but please do pay to come see the show and support the
    arts that feed you.” I will say
    this: we had a multi-racial cast with some potentially inflammatory material
    and thankfully it was never mentioned in any review to the best of my
    knowledge, which gives me a lot of hope.

%d bloggers like this: