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The controversy over a Sun-Times theater review is about more than ‘Pass Over’

Written by
Kris Vire
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Last week, while the theater found itself unexpectedly in the national news thanks to outrage over the Public Theater’s Trumpesque Julius Caesar in New York, a different but equally unusual theatrical conversation was bubbling up in Chicago. The immediate catalyst was the Chicago Sun-Times review of Antoinette Nwandu’s new play Pass Over at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

In Nwandu’s play, which carries intentional parallels to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the characters Moses and Kitch are young black men trapped on a limbo-like street corner, dreaming of passing over into a freer life where they don’t have to be afraid of falling victim to violence. They’re visited by two characters played by the same white actor: one an obsequious yet subtly menacing gent in an ice-cream suit, the other a more openly cruel and authoritarian cop “whose patrol,” I wrote in my review of the show, “seems timed to shut down Moses and Kitch’s most hopeful moments.”

My counterpart at the Sun-Times, Hedy Weiss, took objection to the policeman character in her review, writing that “Nwandu’s simplistic, wholly generic characterization of a racist white cop (clearly meant to indict all white cops) is wrong-headed and self-defeating.” Weiss also engaged in some whataboutism regarding black-on-black violence: “To be sure, no one can argue with the fact that this city (and many others throughout the country) has a problem with the use of deadly police force against African-Americans. But, for all the many and varied causes we know so well, much of the lion’s share of the violence is perpetrated within the community itself.”

The Sun-Times review engendered swift and passionate responses among the Chicago theater community on social media. An ad hoc group of artists of color dubbed the Chicago Theater Accountability Coalition (ChiTAC) launched an online campaign asking theaters to cease providing Weiss with comped press tickets. And Steppenwolf itself posted a statement on Facebook, signed by artistic director Anna D. Shapiro and executive director David Schmitz, that read in part: “Particularly egregious are the comments from Sun-Times critic Hedy Weiss, whose critical contribution has, once again, revealed a deep seated bigotry and a painful lack of understanding of this country’s historic racism.” Some additional theaters have publicly pledged to no longer invite Weiss to their shows for free, while others have made more general statements about re-evaluating their policies, without naming any individuals.

These responses might seem egregious themselves if you pretend, as a remarkably snarky and condescending Chicago Tribune editorial did earlier this week, that they’re just sour grapes in reaction to this single review. But it’s the “once again” in Steppenwolf’s statement that’s key. As suggested by that statement and by the ChiTAC petition (which stands at 3,618 signatures as of this writing), the Pass Over review is being cited as the latest in what’s seen as a years-long pattern of offensive remarks making their way into Weiss’s reviews.

A few of the examples cited repeatedly in conversations since the Pass Over reviews were published include Weiss referring to the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Tony Kushner as “a self-loathing Jew” in a 2004 review of the Broadway production of Caroline, or Change; using a review of Muslim playwright Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s Invasion! to argue for racial profiling (“What practical alternative to profiling would you suggest?”); referring to the young, nonwhite graffiti artists in Steppenwolf’s teen-aimed This Is Modern Art as “urban terrorists”; and an odd comparison between the “‘real women’ figures” and “the perfect bodies of the terrific chorus dancers” in Marriott Theatre’s recent Mamma Mia! as a latest instance of inappropriate comments about performers’ bodies.

As a critic myself, of course, the idea of theaters being able to make ideologically based decisions about who they invite to review their shows gives me some pause. After all, we are hired to give our opinions. Criticism is inherently subjective, and we all bring our own biases and baggage to the theater every night.

But this isn’t an issue of censorship or silencing or free speech, but rather of access. The signatories to the ChiTAC petition are asking that Weiss not be given free tickets. And while comping press is a longstanding norm for the most part, it’s not a law. When The Book of Mormon returned for its second engagement in Chicago, its producers chose not to invite any press. When movie studios don’t want advance reviews of films, they don’t hold press screenings. Publications traditionally pay for their restaurant critics’ meals, so their reviewers can eat anonymously and receive the same service as other guests.

And Weiss, at least, seems to want access to be a one-way street. She’s remained mum amid the current conversation, and some of the theaters and artists speaking out say they’re left with this recourse because attempts over the years to have a direct dialogue—invites to participate in town halls, panels and other discussions—have gone unanswered.

But what we have in this moment, I believe, is a theater community that feels newly empowered in the wake of last year’s explosive Profiles Theatre saga to root out bad behavior within its ranks, and a new generation of artists in the social-media age who believe criticism should be a back-and-forth conversation with many voices participating.

Some of my colleagues will tell you, as the Tribune’s Chris Jones did last night on Chicago Tonight, that our first responsibility as critics is to our readers. I don’t disagree with that. But that doesn’t mean we don’t also have a responsibility to the art and the artists who make it. Where we have the opportunity to examine structural inequities in the field, it’s worth doing. Where we can help encourage theater to be more inclusive and accessible and to reflect the city in which it’s made, that’s worth doing. When we’re given opportunities to examine our own prejudices, that’s worth doing, too. Criticism that meets its subject with openness, respect, curiosity and intellectual rigor best serves both readers and the art. There will still be bad reviews. But all involved can trust they’re written in good faith.

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