EXCLUSIVE: With a search underway to fill one of the highest-profile jobs in theater criticism, influential playwrights are pressing for diversity.
They’re among more than 800 in and outside of theater who signed a petition requesting the New York Times hire either a woman of color or a transgender person of color to replace Charles Isherwood, the second-string reviewer who was fired earlier this month. “For as long as I’ve been reading the Times, it’s been white men,” Winter Miller, the playwright who started the petition, said about its full-time theater reviewers. “Trump’s cabinet has more diversity.”
Signers include Pulitzer Prize-winners Marsha Norman (who won for ‘Night Mother), Lynn Nottage (Ruined), David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole), Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife), plus Pulitzer finalists David Henry Hwang (Yellow Face, M. Butterfly and chairman of the American Theatre Wing), Christopher Shinn (Dying City), Eisa Davis (Bulrusher) and Gina Gionfriddo (Becky Shaw and Rapture, Blister, Burn). Also onboard are actor-writers Halley Feiffer and Kate Wetherhead and actors Seth Numrich, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Renee Elise Goldsberry and Kathleen Chalfant.
The campaign is the latest evidence that the industry remains invested in who critics are and what they write, especially at the Times. Jack Viertel, the artistic director of the Encores! series, recently wrote an 800-word evisceration of Times freelancer Laura Collins-Hughes’ take on Big River, in which she called the musical anachronistic.
Anachronistic also describes the critical establishment.
Out of 27 active and emeritus members of the New York Drama Critics’ Circle, there are just five women, all of them white. Likewise, Bill Hirschman, chairman of the executive committee of the American Theatre Critics Association, said he isn’t aware of any women of color among its 241 members. The association “is painfully aware that there is an obvious dearth of African-American women working as theater critics for high-profile media outlets and obviously this is a problem that concerns us,” he wrote in an email. “A diversity of voices is crucial to a fully-rounded assessment of the arts.”
Playwright Dominique Morisseau (Skeleton Crew) has never been reviewed by a black woman for a major outlet. “It feels that there is something missing from the conversation about my work,” said Morisseau, who also signed the petition. “There is a need to have multiple voices in the room.”
(Margo Jefferson, the author of the memoir Negroland and a Pulitzer winner for book reviews and other cultural criticism in 1995, was the Times‘ second-string theater critic for about six months in 2004. Jefferson didn’t return emails.)
Miller, who initiated the petition and is white, grew up around activism. Her father, Al Norman, is a former journalist who works with communities on campaigns to stop retail sprawl and preserve local businesses. Miller also worked in journalism, including as a news clerk at the Times, as columnist Nicholas Kristof’s researcher and as a freelance writer for the paper. She said she has deep respect for many of its reporters, editors and copy editors. “It’s an institution, and institutions drag their feet where change is concerned,” she added.
Miller said the Times should search for candidates at outlets nationwide, in academia, and those with unconventional credentials. “Disability is also diversity,” she said. She reports that some playwrights said they’re applying. “Book authors review each other’s works,” she noted. According to the job posting, the paper seeks a writer “gifted at assessing performances and stagecraft” and “eager to help readers understand the ideas that drive the work,” but a background in theater writing isn’t required. Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy declined to comment.
Expanding the pool is tougher when papers are shrinking arts coverage and eliminating full-time positions. Matt Windman, author of the book The Critics Say…, in which 57 theater reviewers discuss their craft, said a training program in criticism for diverse students would help. “But what’s the point when there are so few opportunities for employment?” Windman is a lawyer by day and amNewYork theater critic at night.
Meager diversity means fewer reviewers pointing out cultural ‘blind spots,’ said Dan Bacalzo, a Filipino-American who is assistant professor of theater at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers and former managing editor of TheaterMania.com. In 2012, he was the rare reviewer to take issue with Andy Karl and Jessie Mueller playing Sri Lankans in the Roundabout Theatre Co. revival of the musical comedy The Mystery of Edwin Drood. He objected to their dark make-up and dance and gestures that attempted to be imitative of South Asian culture.
Karl and Mueller were portraying white British performers playing Asians — a tempering factor, Bacalzo said. “But that doesn’t automatically excuse a stereotypical representation of an ‘Other’ in a 21st century production,” he said. “A critic of color is liable to notice this sort of thing.”
Hilton Als was one of the few reviewers to find serious fault with the 2009 Broadway revival of Hair, partly because he didn’t encounter a believable black character. “In fact, its strangled, hackneyed depiction of black masculinity is painful to watch,” he wrote in his New Yorker review.
Alternately, Morisseau disagreed with Isherwood’s pan of Invisible Thread, which Second Stage presented in 2015, about a gay black American volunteering in Uganda. She said by criticizing the musical for not going deep into the lives of Africans, Isherwood put his own agenda — curiosity about oppression in Uganda — ahead of the show’s, “which was to focus on a black American’s conflict over his relationship to his heritage and his contemporary liberties.”
Morisseau, who wasn’t involved with the musical, said she visited South Africa and Tanzania over the past three years and knows firsthand the cultural connections and disconnect that black Americans can experience when visiting the continent. “We often underestimate how deeply our American upbringing plays a part in our view of our own ancestral land,” she said. “It’s possible that a Black American critic with this understanding might have written about this play very differently than Isherwood.” (Isherwood declined to comment.)
Morisseau, who’s been championed by Ben Brantley, stresses that she doesn’t believe that white critics are unqualified. “But they have not had their ideas challenged or countered by other perspectives of equal merit that represent a different cultural demographic,” she said. “And this is dangerous moving theater forward in the 21st century.”
Michaela Angela Davis, the producer of a new documentary about the 2016 Broadway production of Eclipsed, which had a black female cast, said a prominent female critic of color would have gone to bat for last season’s diverse offerings, which included Hamilton, The Color Purple and Shuffle Along. “You would’ve seen the connective tissue,” she said.
Davis said generally speaking, black women have an unusual breadth of understanding and sensitivity to different kinds of storytelling. “A white man can be very successful in this culture without knowing anything about black women,” she said. “That wouldn’t happen the other way around.”
Comments from the petition are below: