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What’s Wrong With Weiss?

By Arts & Culture, Featured

Illustration by Sophie Lucido Johnson.

Hedy Weiss has a long and well-documented track record of being highly problematic, to say the least. F Newsmagazine has covered her antics twice already in the past year alone. Whether drawing unfounded parallels between lynchings and concentration camps in the Chicago production of the Broadway Musical, “Wicked”; calling a play’s central protagonists (young graffiti-artists of color)  “urban terrorists”; or blatantly endorsing racial profiling in her review of Silk Road Rising’s “INVASION!”; Hedy Weiss is apparently unable to write a review that isn’t steeped in bias, prejudice, and racism.

The above examples are just a small selection from a long and ever-lengthening list of offensive pieces Weiss has written under the guise of theatrical criticism for The Chicago Sun-Times. So her recent review of Steppenwolf Theatre’s “Pass Over” by Antoinette Nwandu was almost expected to be tone-deaf and offensive. What may have not have been expected, however, was the extent to which Chicago’s theater community has had enough.

Nwandu’s “Pass Over,” a new take on Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” focuses on two young black men passing time on a street corner. Over the course of its 80-minute runtime, “Pass Over” goes on to address the issue of police brutality and the death of countless black people at the hands of police. In her review Weiss writes:

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. Nwandu’s simplistic, wholly generic characterization of a racist white cop (clearly meant to indict all white cops) is wrong-headed and self-defeating. Just look at news reports about recent shootings (on the lakefront, on the new River Walk, in Woodlawn) and you will see the look of relief when the police arrive on the scene. And the playwright’s final scenes – including a speech by the clueless white aristocrat who appears earlier in the story – and who could not be more condescending to Steppenwolf’s largely white “liberal” audience – further rob the play of its potential impact.

Given that within the same week, the country has seen Philando Castile’s murderer, police officer Jeronimo Yanez, go free (not to mention the protests that followed) and the death of the pregnant Charleena Lyles, who was shot by police after calling to report a burglary, one might argue that a playwright’s handling of a character that’s a “racist white cop,” regardless of the arguable notion that said character might be “meant to indict all white cops,” would at the very least be artistically relevant and motivated, if not downright justified. Any cultural critic capable of dramatic analysis and relating a given piece of work to the societal context and cultural climate it is an artifact of ought to be able to see the dramaturgical purpose of such a characterization. However, Weiss deems it instead to be “wrong-headed and self-defeating.”

The idea that Weiss herself, a white woman, is in a better position to take into account black-on-black violence than Nwandu is (Nwandu is black), is offensive and condescending. This is a cliched and tiresome attempt to distract from the very real, deadly, and systemic problem of police killing black citizens with faux concern for the violence occurring within the community itself.

For a writer clearly familiar with condescension, it’s a little ironic that Weiss might find a speech given by “by the clueless white aristocrat” character to be “condescending.” Any real theatre critic with actual dramaturgical wherewithal would be familiar with dramatic techniques such as those established by the work of Bertolt Brecht whose “distancing” or “alienation” effect is purposefully developed so that (according to Wikipedia):

The audience could be able to reach such an intellectual level of understanding (or intellectual empathy); in theory, while alienated emotionally from the action and the characters, they would be empowered on an intellectual level both to analyze and perhaps even to try to change the world, which was Brecht’s social and political goal as a playwright and the driving force behind his dramaturgy.

A critic capable of actual theoretical criticism might be able to look at Nwandu’s choice to include “a speech by the clueless white aristocrat who appears earlier in the story — and who could not be more condescending to Steppenwolf’s largely white ‘liberal’ audience” and see the successful execution of an established and renowned dramaturgical technique. Instead, Weiss allows bias and prejudice to color her review. She dismisses Nwandu’s intentional choice as one that “further rob[s] the play of its potential impact.”

That Weiss maintains a position of authority with regards to theater in Chicago is obviously problematic. Following the most recent presidential election and the course of events since, many people — artists especially — have found that allowing for the problematic to go unchallenged is no longer a viable option. Staying silent is not a viable option. It is a testament to the artistic integrity of Chicago’s theatre community that Weiss’ position of authority is finally being challenged.

Shortly following Weiss’ review of “Pass Over,” multiple theater artists — in particular artists of color — began to call out the problematic nature of Weiss’ coverage of Nwandu’s play. For years, conversations have been happening among theater artists in Chicago regarding Weiss and the implicit prejudices of her reviews. The idea and practice of not extending invitations to press openings or free tickets (comps) to Weiss has been one that many theater artists have considered or adopted. For the first time, this idea isn’t just being bandied about; it has been widely called for.

In a relatively short period of time following Weiss’ review, a number of Chicago artists came together to form the Chicago Theater Accountability Coalition. Comprised of numerous theater practitioners in Chicago and elsewhere (though always with roots and close ties to the Chicago theater community) the Chicago Theater Accountability Coalition — or ChiTAC, as it’s often hashtagged (#ChiTAC) — has gotten to work.

Helmed in large part by Chicago theater artists that identify as people of color, ChiTAC has organized swiftly, mobilizing theater artists into email writing campaigns and using both social and professional networks to encourage theaters to stop inviting Weiss to their plays. They’ve even started a Change.org petition that has close to 3,000 signatures.

The story has only been picking up steam, gaining coverage from such websites as Broadwayworld.com and Jezebel. Jezebel’s coverage of the story refers to a statement from ChiTAC identifying its “co-creators as Ike Holter, Kevin Matthew Reyes, Tony Santiago, Sydney Charles and Sasha Smith,” and relates that, for the coalition:

The goal is not to ban anyone, but to simply have theaters not hand out free tickets to someone with a history of prejudice in their reviews[…] If we can’t resist this, in our city, then we should stop pretending our safety pins work. This? This is theater. And it’s small, and it’s important, and we can fix it.

As of this writing, a large number of theaters (The Gift Theatre, The New Colony, First Floor Theatre, and many others) have publicly announced that they’re committing to no longer invite Weiss to review their plays. This is not to say that she would not be allowed to see any given play; theaters will simply no longer invite her in an official capacity, nor provide her with free tickets. That so many theaters are coming out publicly and committing to this course of action has to be one of the most exciting developments with regards to the coalition’s goal to affect change. The Chicago theater community is coming together in a huge way to hold accountable the authority figures that for so long have utilized their positions to perpetuate deeply biased, prejudiced, and ill-founded opinions in the guise of criticism.

Yet, for all of the theaters and artists coming together as a united front, either joining up with the coalition or showing their support for ChiTAC, there are a few who are choosing a different route. Some don’t see the point, dismissing the issue as a simple matter of choosing to not read Weiss’ reviews. Others see it as a free-speech issue, which is understandably complicated.

In a statement from The Chicago Tribune’s Editorial Board the Tribune makes it clear that they hold little regard for the thousands of people who have taken issue with Weiss’ work. Here’s an excerpt:

Such histrionics. Bravo! Too bad the structure of their argument is so weak. The deal between professional artists and critics is that artists create art and critics critique. Artists don’t have to like the reviews, or even read them, but they have to suck it up and take them, assuming they are delivered in good faith, as longtime critic Weiss does. Complain too much, theater people, and you look like crybabies, especially if you also accept praise. […]

 

Weiss is an established critic who has been writing on theater and dance for the Sun-Times since 1984. Her job is to help readers understand theater and decide which plays to see. Weiss praises some performance and trashes others, based on her analysis of the production. Just like playwrights, Weiss owes her ultimate allegiance to her audience. No one has to throw her a parade. No one throws parades for umpires, either.

 

There’s a hint of campus-style intellectual coddling at play in the attacks on Weiss, as if members of the theater community, like some students and professors, want to exist in a “safe space” protected from disagreeable ideas. But if there’s one place in the creative world that shouldn’t be safe from controversy, it’s the theater. Live performances deliver ideas and emotions in a uniquely powerful way. Playwrights speak their mind, and so do critics.

 

If some members of the Chicago theater community need a “trigger warning” to get through the season, then here it is: You won’t like every review you see.

Aside from its obviously sarcastic and immature tone, the Tribune’s editorial piece reeks of bruised ego. Yes, Weiss is “an established critic who has been writing […] for the Sun-Times since 1984;” however, the implication that, as a fixture of the establishment, she is somehow above being held accountable is absurd. The notion that “the structure of their argument is so weak” hinges on the idea that it is unfounded for artists to refuse to give free access to their work to a writer who continually provides “weak” criticism, failing to look beyond her own limited perspective and take into account the experiences of artists of color and others. If “her job is to help readers understand theater” it is very clear that Weiss is very bad at her job. Her writing often shows that she barely understands theater and definitely struggles with understanding the human experience outside of her own as a cis, white woman; so she is obviously not qualified for her job. One wouldn’t hire a Spanish tutor who didn’t understand the language.

While the editorial seems to make light of concepts like “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and “campus-style intellectual coddling,” it reads as yet another example of the generational criticism that dismisses the outspoken nature of a population of artists and activists that live in a world where trigger warnings have to deal with the actual trauma of police violence, school shootings, and the failures of the generations that have come before. Well, as exemplified by the folks of ChiTAC, these artists and activists that are done “suck[ing] it up.”

Chris Jones, theater reviewer for The Chicago Tribune (and co-subject of F Newsmagazine’s  “White Critic in the White City”), predictably came to Weiss’ defense. In a public Facebook post, Jones writes, in part:

I support Hedy’s right, as a long-serving professional in this field, to express her opinion, even though it may be contrary, as in this case, to the prevailing point of view or, at least, mode of expression, and even offensive to some.

In my experience, engagement with different points of view is always preferable to trying to shut them down or ban their free expression […]

A critic’s primary responsibility is to the reader; it is our readers who judge us. And believe me, they let us know how we are doing and how much use they have for us.

The interesting thing about this line of defense is that, as many defendants of Weiss do, it fails to take into account Weiss’ position of power in this situation. Here is a writer at a lauded publication, with a long, successful career. Her income comes from viewing and writing about the art created by people who, with notable exceptions, do not support themselves solely by the creation of their art. She literally profits off the art that she writes about. When that writing disregards the perspective and humanity of the people creating said art; how is that not exploitation?

Furthermore, as a white writer, Weiss’ clear lack of perspective and obvious biases and prejudices go on to, through publication and her seat of authority, perpetuate attitudes and viewpoints that are not merely offensive, but downright harmful to disenfranchised communities. Weiss’s position as a “critic” imbues her with the sort of responsibility of one who has a position of power that’s part of a larger system. The country — the world —  has seen the role and power of the press and media. When that power is misused, it is irresponsible to let it continue on, held unaccountable.

If “a critic’s primary responsibility is to the reader,” what Jones seems to be failing to recognize is that a large portion of his and Weiss’ readership consists of theater practitioners. If as Jones says, “it is [their] readers who judge [them],” it is obvious that he and Weiss have been judged; and they have been found wanting.

Overall, The Annoyance Theater puts it most succinctly in their public Facebook statement reading:

RE Hedy Weiss… For years we’ve been frustrated that she has failed at assessing the first step in the basics of critiquing art (Goethe) — instead, judging from her own biased p.o.v.

  1. What has the artist tried to do?
  2. How well have they done it?
  3. Was it worth doing?

so yeah, no more free tix.

 

All in all, that’s what it comes down to. No more free tix.

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