A few years ago, at a town hall addressing the controversy that arose over reviews of Steppenwolf's production of This Is Modern Art, I asked one of our community's preeminent critics if they had a responsibility to learn about hip-hop culture considering that so many shows were being written from the perspective of, and about, the hip-hop generation.
Their response? "No."
Chicago, we have a problem.
The Chicago theatrical community has been embroiled in an ongoing controversy regarding the future of criticism since long before I arrived in 2008. It came to a head last summer when a group of artists, known collectively as the Chicago Theatre Accountability Coalition ( ChiTAC ), organized thousands of people across the country to sign a petition that called for theaters to stop giving Hedy Weiss, the now-former critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, complimentary tickets to their shows. ( Full disclosure: Though not a part of ChiTAC, I have been a very vocal proponent for the continued questioning of our critical community. )
But the problem is far larger than one critic and one review. As their mission statement states, ChiTac "seeks to call attention to the acceptance of racism, bigotry, and hate speech in Chicago theatre criticism." Last summer's tension extended beyond the normal friction between artists and reviewers, into a questioning of the place our critical community has in an ever-diversifying world. It wasn't about bad reviews. It was about reviews that don't show a fundamental understanding of the work.
We imbue our critics with a sacred position. The dynamics are shifting due to the internet, but, critics still hold the ability to make or break individual shows and, at times, whole companies. It is a tenuous partnership: Critics have no job without art to criticize. Artists need critics to expose a wider audience to their work. But, as the art world becomes increasingly more diverse and stages begin to reflect a larger swath of our world, our critical community has remained, largely, homogenous.
As a young( -ish ), Black, male actor, committed to equity, diversity and inclusion, I believe that fostering a variety of perspectives in every aspect of our lives is always positive and, most often, fundamentally necessary for the betterment of our society. And, as theater, specifically, becomes immersed in aesthetics tied to specific cultural backgrounds, it is imperative that we find voices steeped in those backgrounds to evaluate the work.
If you cannot decipher the language, if you have no understanding of the cultural cues embedded in the work, how can you evaluate whether it is good? Not every work can or should be an introductory primer on the world it represents.
This is not to say that White critics or straight critics or male critics or critics of any non-marginalized identity can't offer valid criticism of a marginalized community's art. It is to say that those critics must work towards a continuing understanding of the world that the art inhabits.
Art is not objective. There can be no understanding without empathy and there can be no empathy without familiarity. If our critics want to continue to position themselves as arbiters of what should be seen, then they must work to understand the perspective and objective. If that means that they have to go back and listen to a little Biggie well … *Kanye shrug* ( Look it up ).
Unless our critical community begins to learn from the breadth of new expression finally being granted access to our stages, criticism in Chicago will continue a trajectory toward irrelevance. If we can find a way to nurture new talent, if critics can begin to expand their perspectives and do the homework the profession demands, we may be able to bring theatrical criticism into the next generation. If not? *Kanye shrug*.