One of Chicago's most prominent critics was eviscerated for her words, amid a huge outcry that she be denied press tickets to productions citywide for her opinions, and that the Sun Times send another reviewer. Another critic chose to lead with a hot button word in her review of the same production that triggered general outrage and heated calls for her to never review again, causing her to forgo writing theatre reviews for the foreseeable future.
Then the vitriol spread from directed barbs to slams agains ALL critics and a rant that nobody would miss us if we were all abducted by aliens and we're not worth the rope to hang us, in a verbal attack nasty enough that Facebook removed it.
Chicago's theatre community, from artistic directors, actors, and theatres to critics, is still engaged in a heated debate over where to draw the line on policing review content versus free speech. It's a potential game changer. I don't think anyone condones hate speech, whether racially motivated or directed at critics, but who makes that judgement call and censors potential hot button phrases? It's an incredibly complicated and nuanced issue, especially with the rise of on line reviewers who don't have editors and a parent publication to police their content before publication. Reviews by their very nature are opinion pieces, and one person's opinion that content is innocuous or has artistic merit may be considered racist or hate speech by others.
Production photo from Pass Over at Steppenwolf
"We denounce the viewpoints expressed in some of these reviews as they fail to acknowledge the very systemic racism that 'Pass Over' addresses directly. 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. Her contribution is actively working against the kind of theater we are striving to be," Steppenwolf artistic director Anna D. Shapiro and executive director David Schmitz said in a statement e-mailed to the Tribune.
I've been reviewing plays for 7 years now and it's tougher than people think. There truly is power in the written word. Productions have folded right after the press opening due to bad reviews. Critics can make or break actors' careers. Critical writing goes beyond breaking out adjectives and trying not to give too many spoilers. We're tasked with truthfully conveying not only a production's merit, but all it's deeper levels of meaning, and doing justice to the storytelling and the presentation and execution. Yes, I 100% agree there's no excuse for outright prejudice and racism, but critics shouldn't write fluff and fear for our livelihood if the choice of a word or turn of phrase is misunderstood. I know both Hedy and Katy professionally and neither seems to be a bigot or a racist in real life, despite their inevitable bias of white privilege. Their jobs are to cover diverse productions by people of every race, religion and color and they try to do it with wit and wisdom, and as fallible human beings, sometimes they fall short.
Hedy has had a lifelong career as a critic and has written many brilliant reviews over decades in the industry. She has insight that comes with age and experience and that's valuable. That said, we all can learn and grow. We all need to give serious thought to what it means for the future of theatre and critical reviews if critics are bullied into silence or fired for expressing any viewpoints other than a narrow one that offends no one.
Nobody can entirely escape their own backgrounds and leanings in an opinion piece, and the audience brings their own backgrounds and biases into a show, too. We have every right to expect respect and civility in reviews, but we can't expect consensus on interpretations, and throwing Hedy and Katy under the bus for perceived racism doesn't foster healthy debate and discussion, it quashes it with an iron boot.
Theatre can be pure magic, evoke emotions, change minds, and foster understanding. As Dr. Who says, "We're all stories in the end." and the alchemy of theatre is intoxicating. It's a dynamic, living art form where the audience energy mixes with and changes what happens on stage, and people leave transformed.
Katy did all the right things, removing the "N" word immediately and issuing an apology on social media as soon as she realized she'd crossed the line and pissed off a lot of people. She also issued a written apology on her site and wrote a letter of contrition on her blog as well. They're the very things mature adults do, and what I've been teaching my teens since they were toddlers. Everyone screws up at some point. Everyone hurts someone else sooner or later, by accident or on purpose. Not if, WHEN this happens, don't deny it or make excuses. Even if you had no clue your words or actions would be hurtful or misunderstood, apologize. The feelings of others are legitimate and if they're hurt you need to learn from the situation. Then you try to fix it.
Yes, many were truly and legitimately offended, though that was never Katy's intention. And those feeling are absolutely valid. Nevertheless, some went above and beyond, attacking, bullying and silencing her. Ultimately, in the aftermath, she chose to stop reviewing theatre for at least a few months, if not forever. Many may see this as a victory, but I know Katy, and the loss of her talented voice and insight would be a tragedy.
There's a fine line between free speech and hate speech, but writing needs to be taken in context. Katy learned the hard lesson that the WHO matters. Black rappers can say the N word with impunity. White theatre critics can't. Still, what those she offended need to understand is the WHY matters too. She was not using the word as a weapon of hate, but as a tool to evoke change and promote greater racial understanding, by advocating for people to come experience a challenging and intense piece of theatre. Critics can't write truthfully and fully if one misunderstood word or phrase can bring down public wrath on line and end their careers.
We live in tough times, where the internet has simultaneously given us more connection and greater isolation. Our police do seem to be murdering black men with impunity and our president is eroding human rights at an alarming pace. More diverse voices have a platform than ever before, and yet it's easier than ever to get lost in the lies, miss the nuances of meaning, and spew threats and bile with the ease of anonymity. We need our stories, a myriad of different voices, and our words now, more than ever. We need to listen to each other and learn. We need to be patient with each other and work through the misunderstandings, miscommunications and mistakes instead of responding with knee jerk indignation and outrage.
I'm not defending Katy or Hedy's word choices, but I am defending the idea that it's a vicious overreaction to go after ideas you disagree with with petitions to bar someone from doing their job or threats of violence. Writers need to be free to convey the essence of a production, make people think, and not fear for their safety or their careers with every keystroke. Reviews are not meant to please everyone and artists, writers, activists, musicians and other creatives have true power to spark change. Women on line are often silenced these days with call to fire, or worst case scenario, ugly threats of rape and murder, and that needs to change. We need to have each other's backs and shine a light on this situation, whether it's happening to writers, activists, scientists or school kids. Sure, people also have the right to express their outrage at an injustice, but trolls incite just to get a rise out of people, and sometimes anger turns to violent actions and reactions. When someone is bullied or censored into stopping writing or speaking out, we all lose.
We have all been given a chance to grow through this situation, and where we all take it from here matters. We are not a fascist regime where writers are put to death or exiled for writing something controversial. This situation sparked a spirited debate between me and my husband over breakfast in a diner, that caught the interest of the couple in the booth behind us and they joined in! It ranged over the crucial ideas of racism, free speech, race inequity and violence, internet threats, voice, bias, and beyond. Sometimes writing theatre reviews can feel like shouting into the void. Yet, sometimes, reviews start a chain reaction of discussions, birth ideas, firm resolves, educate and enlighten. Words matter. Debates with strangers over breakfast matter. Discussions, discourse, and really hearing each other matters. And writers who spark that matter too.
Yesterday, a week after the snafu, Katy left a letter of contrition on her site that moved me to tears. I'll close with her wise words.
A letter of contrition…
It’s been 6 days since my horrible mistake regarding the use of an offensive word in a theatre review. If you aren’t aware of my blunder, this letter isn’t for you. If you know exactly what I’m talking about, please take a moment to read this.
I’ve spent a lot of time in contemplation of my error. As a writer, I know the power of words. And the wrong one at the wrong time is bad enough. My mistake wasn’t timing, it was utilization. The word I used wasn’t and is not mine to use. My intent was a poetic illustration of the play’s rhythm but it was perceived as a savage attack on a group of people. Instead of connecting people to a powerful play, it fueled rage brought on by my ignorance and drew attention to the power of a word that has a long history of hate and division. And I found myself, for the first time in my life, seen as a perpetrator of hate.
A lot of you don’t know me but that is not who I am. I’m a person who champions marginalized populations, advocates for people who can’t find their voice and believes being kind is THE most important contribution an individual can make in life.
I ask you to forgive me for my short-sighted understanding of the damage I could do with one word. I’m not asking for you to forgive and forget. I know I won’t forget. The response to my review will change me and challenge me to work to be a better person.
I have decided to take a break from theatre reviewing…at least for the summer. I would never want a theatre company to feel ashamed or embarrassed to invite or un-invite me to a show or have an actor feel that could not perform because I was attending. My intent, as a reviewer, has always been, and always will be, to promote theatre and all the talent in the Chicago theatre community. If I don’t return as a reviewer, I’ll find other ways to support theatre.
During this summer, I will be having conversations with others about this issue and others. I invite anyone to have coffee or a drink with me this summer to talk more. I believe real change comes from individuals coming together and talking. If you are interested in helping me bridge divides and build understanding, please, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.