It was just another day at The New York Times theatre desk. Critic Laura Collins-Hughes filed a review of an Encores production of Big River at New York City Center, William Hauptman and Roger Miller’s musical adaptation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Despite positive notes at the beginning of the review, she took issue with the racial politics of the show, writing: “Right now, with the United States plumbing its own soul over questions of privilege and belonging, the show doesn’t seem to have a great deal to add.”
In response, City Center producer Jack Viertel wrote a letter to the Times (later posted and heartily seconded by former Times critic Frank Rich on his Facebook page). It criticized the review, calling it “a significant humiliation for the paper, a stunningly amateurish piece of work which…contains more than a whiff of condescension to what is almost inarguably America’s greatest novel, and certainly its greatest satire.”
Times editors Danielle Mattoon and Scott Heller in turn issued a response to that letter, which read, in part: “It’s incumbent upon our critics to think out loud about how a stage work might register with a 21st century audience. To do otherwise is to make theatre nothing more than a scholastic enterprise.”
Right off the bat, the optics were troubling: two white men telling a female critic that she shouldn’t bring up the issue of black representation in the show, despite the fact that one of the main character is a slave. In the back and forth that followed on social media (and in Nicole Serratore’s wonderful take in Exeunt), I noticed that no authoritative critic of color had weighed in.
So I decided to phone frequent AT contributor Kelundra Smith, a black critic and journalist working in Atlanta. Being born and raised in the South, she is familiar with Twain’s work, though she admits she’s never seen a production of Big River. “I don’t even know if it’s produced in the South,” she admitted. “I was looking—when was the last time anybody did this play?” (We found a 2011 production at Playmakers in Chapel Hill, N.C.) Interestingly, though he wrote almost exclusively about the South, Missouri native Mark Twain isn’t considered a Southerner by most in the region, including Smith, who said, “We would be much more likely to look at the work of a Flannery O’Connor or a Truman Capote or a William Faulkner before we looked at the work of a Mark Twain.”
But what she could tell me about was her perception of the controversy, Mark Twain’s racial politics, and whether racial discourse has a place in theatre reviews. Below is the edited transcript of our conversation.
What were your initial reactions to this controversy? Are the questions that are being raised by it—like what critics should and should not bring up in theatre reviews—valid ones? Or is this the case of a bunch of white people arguing among themselves?
[Laughs] It’s always a bunch of white people arguing among themselves, Diep! Let’s just put that on the table.
But I think that every critic has a different way that they approach criticism. And I personally do always ask the question, why this work now? Whether it’s a play, musical, performance art, whatever—why this now? I do think it’s important to put things in some sort of cultural context when you’re asking the question of: Why choose to mount this today? The answer doesn’t have to necessarily be anything. I do believe in beauty for beauty’s sake. It doesn’t have to be a deep political reason that you produce any given work. But I’m still going to ask the question.
That said, we talk about what questions critics are allowed to raise? I think the critic is allowed to raise any question the critic wants about a given work. The producer doesn’t have to like it, but the critic is always allowed to raise the question. What I took issue with in Laura Collins-Hughes’ review were her reasons for raising her questions, because I thought her reasons were misguided. Readers tore her apart in the comments section of that review, even people who agreed with her, because her ability to articulate her reasons and her reasoning didn’t match. It’s like she didn’t have enough words to raise the issues she was trying to raise. I’m the type of person personally, as a critic, where if I don’t have enough words to make the argument, I will forgo the argument, because you don’t want those types of holes in your argument, especially when you’re talking about race.
What were the holes?
She makes this statement that it’s difficult to watch this story play out with the relationship between the slave Jim and this boy Huckleberry Finn, given today’s sociopolitical climate—given the fact that there is a Black Lives Matter movement, and we’re almost 200 years post-Emancipation, given the fact that we have a president who uses the words “inner city” and “African American” and “gang member” interchangeably. It’s hard to watch this work where a character of color’s voice is sidelined. I don’t think that that’s an invalid statement to make—that for her it’s hard to watch.
But when she was talking about how the black characters really weren’t given much to play, they weren’t given the opportunity to have their Nat Turner moment—well, that’s not Huckleberry Finn. Some of the humor, if you want to call it that, in Mark Twain’s original work was from the fact that you had this wiser slave who has the ability to navigate his way down the Mississippi River a little better than this white boy. But because he’s a slave, his voice can’t be heard, and neither can any of the other black characters that they encounter, because no matter how coy and Peter Pan-ish Huckleberry Finn is, because he’s white his word will always stand.
So her conclusion, questioning what this musical has to add to today’s racial discourse—was that a valid question to ask?
I think the question to ask is: Was Encores, in producing this musical, trying to add anything to our racial discourse? Not what does it add, but were they trying to add to it? Without knowing the theatre’s intentions in producing the work, to ask “what does this add to our racial discourse” is not a fair question. Because you don’t know if they were trying to add anything at all! Maybe they were just trying to entertain people for two-and-a-half hours.
Now with that said, art is not created in a vacuum. Because if you’re going to do a play in the 21st century, especially in this moment, that has any sort of slave character in it, then you are joining the cultural conversation about race, whether you want to or not. So that’s dicey—that’s complicated. I don’t know if I have a definite answer there. I can see it both ways.
I feel like when a critic brings up issues of sexism or racism in reviews, especially about works which many people don’t associate with being sexist or racist, many people seem offended it’s being brought up in the first place.
Well, that is true. I have questions about whether the producer would have written the letter if the show had been critiqued by a man [Ed. note: Jesse Green, a male critic, filed an even harsher review for New York, garnering no response from Viertel]. Also, Laura is younger in the scheme of critics, and I wonder if she were older whether this letter would have been written and whether she would have been scrutinized as much. I think there is some take-down of Laura that’s happening a bit unfairly because of her age and her gender. And that was where [Viertel’s] letter fell apart for me. I actually agreed with some of the producer’s points, but when he got personal, talking about Laura as the critic and not just talking about this particular piece of criticism, that got shaky for me. Okay, you want her to evaluate the work in a vacuum, but you’re taking this one review as a reflection of her merit as a writer. That’s not fair either.
But this is also a very New York thing, because I do believe truly—as someone who spent a limited time in New York City and also lived in Upstate New York—in the South we are so much more used to dealing with race and talking about race. But it’s almost like neither Laura nor the producer had the language they needed to be able to talk about this, because they were so worried about being PC and not coming off as racist. This is such a New York argument: Anything that threatens the New York theatre scene’s superiority complex is like [chuckles], “In New York we don’t have issues with race.”
You know, in this country we have never had a real conversation about race, and a real acknowledgement of white privilege, and a real acknowledgement of the systems that we have in place that keep people poor and criminalized. People of color have real conversations about race, but we don’t have real conversations about these things with white people in the room. And then when white people do get in the room, they’re so afraid to say the wrong thing because they don’t want to be seen as racist that they don’t say anything at all. And so the conversation doesn’t get anywhere. I think people are annoyed because they’re tired of hinting at conversations about race and never having one.
Last question. The end of Viertel’s letter says, “It comes down to whether the Times is willing to publish ill-informed, politically motivated nonsense based on social and cultural trendiness and consider it serious criticism. I certainly hope not.” What do you think theatre criticism should look like in 2017? My answer would be that you can’t criticize theatre in a vacuum. You need to be able to both acknowledge the climate in which the art was made and also how the art can relate to our contemporary lives. What’s your answer?
Okay, that’s a big one. I do think you do have to consider in your criticism the time period in which the work was written. I don’t think we can place 2017 cultural sensibilities on work that was written in the late 1800s, early 1900s. I think that’s being unfair, and I do think theatres should still be allowed to produce works that are derived from a time period in our country where we were less “woke.” I don’t think that we should police that.
I think a critic’s job is three things. One is to elevate the taste of the people who are experiencing theatre. So when you’re talking about the merits of the work, you’re also helping people to create their tastes. And I think it is to be in some ways a documentarian and historian of the fact that that work happened. Finally, I think it is to create a point of entry into the work by putting it in a social and cultural context. Those are the three roles of the critic that I subscribe to. Those aren’t the only three roles of the critic—there are a lot of people who will tell you some others. Some people will say the role of the critic is to tell me if this is worth my $40 or not. But in my approach to my criticism, I am always taking those three things into account.
I do think that not mentioning the time and place in which the piece is presented is a disservice to the work. Just because you revere Mark Twain doesn’t mean you can’t question whether the work stands up over time. I know there’s a tendency in our artistic canon not to question that. Laura Collins-Hughes asked: Does this work still stand up? Clearly the audience thought it stood up. Laura didn’t. What happens when the critic’s opinion differs from the audience’s opinion? And then, why the hell does the producer care? Sell your tickets! Sell. Your. Tickets.