Much has changed about the arts journalism trade over the past decade. With the democratization of publishing offered by the internet, many traditional media outlets have succumbed to economic pressures, and in many cases the first jobs to go are the arts reporters and critics. This has created an environment in which theatre critics have to justify their existence and importance—especially since, outside of New York, theatre artists are seldom waiting on pins and needles for the first-night review in the papers to determine the fate of their show.
But as much as the critical landscape has shifted, something that hasn’t changed is the lack of diversity in the field. Most theatre critics—staff, freelance, hobbyist, or otherwise—are still white men. Speculation about the reasons for the lack of diversity in theatre criticism ranges from disinterest in the field to difficulty of access.
In 2011, results from the National Endowment for the Arts Survey for Public Participation in the Arts revealed that attending one arts event as a child makes a person twice as likely to be an arts patron as an adult. The study also revealed that arts education is the largest factor in arts participation, and that black and Latino children are 50 percent less likely to receive arts education as a part of their school curriculum. This means that if a person does not attend theatre as a child, they are likely never to go, let alone aspire to write about it for a living.
This creates a gap in coverage for the field. An individual’s personal experiences affect the way that they experience a performance: Age, race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and ability all shape the way we see the world, and the way that the world sees us. This is not to say that a theatre critic needs to share the same background as the theatre artists she’s reviewing to give the work a fair review. But it is to say that the way that work is received is influenced by who the critic is when they walk into a room.
In recent years the issue of diversity in theatre criticism, and the lack thereof, has occupied the minds of not just journalists and editors but artists. Over the summer Hedy Weiss’s review in the Chicago Sun-Times of Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over at Steppenwolf sparked an outcry from the city’s theatre community, many members of which advocated denying her complimentary tickets to productions. In response, in October Goodman Theatre hosted a theatre criticism boot camp called Criticism in a Changing America to train emerging theatre critics on how to review a variety of works.
And last spring when The New York Times announced that they were looking for a co-lead critic to replace Charles Isherwood, 910 artists signed a petition asking the paper to hire a person of color to fill that top slot. Among those who signed was Tony-winning playwright David Henry Hwang, who wrote, “In a diverse city, and a nation where POC [people of color] will become the majority in a couple of decades, theatre needs to broaden its audience base to remain vital and survive.” Indeed, for all its challenges on this front, the theatre field is more diverse than the people charged with reviewing it. The Times hired Jesse Green, a white man, as co-lead critic with longtime lead critic Ben Brantley, another white man.
Of the remaining full-time staff theatre critics in the country, only four are people of color: Hilton Als at The New Yorker (who won the 2017 Pulitzer in criticism), Wei-Huan Chen at the Houston Chronicle, Karen d’Souza at the San Jose Mercury News, and Rohan Preston at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. All four are the children of immigrants: Als’s mother moved to New York from Barbados, Chen’s parents arrived in Long Island from Taiwan, d’Souza’s parents migrated to Boston from India, and Preston’s parents came to Brooklyn from Jamaica. Chen, d’Souza, and Preston all agreed to separate phone interviews to talk about how they entered the field of theatre criticism, what they see as the challenges in the field, and their experiences as the only ones who look like them in the aisle seat.
After winning the Pulitzer, Als spoke with New Yorker editor David Remnick (who wrote his Pulitzer Prize nomination) about the black writers who inspired his career, and about bringing work by artists of color to the forefront, on the New Yorker Radio Hour podcast.
“I always perked up when I would see something by Andrea Lee about black Philadelphia life, or Jamaica Kincaid, or Derek Walcott. Jervis Anderson was a huge favorite of mine; I thought he was a great reporter. But it felt as if these different stories were sort of guest-starring roles, as opposed to part of the general conversation. So when I started to write here, I wanted people of color to be a part of the general conversation…I felt it was very important to not make color a specialty conversation. And there were so many writers of color that I loved. I just wanted the conversation to get bigger.”
The desire to bring the work of artists of color into the broader cultural conversation is one shared by many theatre critics of color. Beyond that, though, is a common urge to get past merely filling the gap, and to normalize the sight of a person of color sitting in critical judgment alongside their white colleagues.
KELUNDRA SMITH: How were you first introduced to theatre?
Wei-Huan Chen: I was a jazz performance major at Brandeis University, but my parents did not want me to pursue something that wasn’t lucrative. As a journalist for the student paper, I went to Boston and I discovered the amazing theatre scene there. I remember I saw a production of an obscure Tennessee Williams play called Green Eyes at Company One, and it was staged with five people sitting in a hotel room, while two actors performed this domestic violence scene. I just fell in love with the viscerality and intimacy of theatre, and I decided I wanted to be Ben Brantley, Roger Ebert, A.O. Scott, and Manohla Dargis. I realize now that all of my critic idols are white, but I wasn’t thinking about that then.
Karen D’Souza: I fell in love with theatre as a kid. We were flying to India when I was 11 years old and it was a really long flight, so I went to the library and got a big stack of books, and Shakespeare was in there. By the time we got to India, I was really lost in Othello and Romeo & Juliet. I didn’t think I would have that kind of cultural connection to Shakespeare, and I think some of that was race-based—that this little Indian girl would find some commonality with Shakespeare, it really surprised me, and it occurred to me that the classics belong to everyone.
Rohan Preston: I had parents who were very afraid of New York in the ’70s, and so they didn’t want us to go and hang out as many of the other kids did. But we could we go to the library and to cultural events. So I associate theatre, dance, museum, libraries, all of that stuff with freedom.
How did you become a theatre critic?
Chen: I wanted to get a job and I wanted to get better at my craft, so at my college paper, I forced myself to write a story every single week. Five hundred reviews later I found my voice. I got an internship at the Boston Phoenix and at GateHouse Media, and eventually got a job doing hard news at GateHouse Media. I then went to Lafayette, Ind., and then to Indianapolis, where I started writing theatre reviews for the heck of it. I started looking for jobs as a critic, and I saw a posting that the Houston Chronicle was looking for someone who had daily newspaper experience and knew how to review classical music and theatre. That’s a rare combination. It was a happy accident.
D’Souza: I pursued political science and theatre for my bachelor’s, and I stumbled onto theatre criticism while I was getting my journalism master’s degree at [University of California-Berkeley]. As the child of Indian immigrants, you kind of had to do something practical, and political science is the traditional law school prerequisite. I did that for my parents and then I did drama for me.
I had done some journalism internships, so I had some clips, and I ended up talking my way into freelancing because I couldn’t afford tickets to go to the theatre. I was interning with the Los Angeles Times, and while I was there the theatre critic at the Oakland Tribune ended up quitting, and I had been freelancing for them as well, so they called me. A few years later, I went to the Sacramento Bee, and then after that I moved to the Mercury News in 2001.
Preston: When I graduated from college, I moved from New Haven, Conn., to Chicago to become a writer. I had an editor at Newcity in Chicago, Brian Hieggelke, and he gave me some great advice: that I didn’t need to show my intelligence with big words and smarts, but to explain things in language that everyone understands, so I could broaden the stakeholders as widely as possible.
I freelanced and eventually took my clips from the Newcity to the Chicago Tribune, where I became a freelance arts writer, and then I used those clips to become a national news stringer for The New York Times. Eventually, I was hired at the Tribune on an internship, then was recruited into my current position, so I’ve been here almost 20 years at the Star-Tribune.
FAVORITE PLAYS AND MUSICALS Chen: The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, Dear Evan Hansen, Indecent, Buried Child, A View From the Bridge, The Nether, Dutchman, and Fun Home. D’Souza: I find that my favorite plays shift over time. It’s impossible to pin down a favorite because my response to the plays truly evolves. For me, the exception to the rule is Sweeney Todd. That one just gets deeper and more terrifyingly meaningful every time. Preston: There are things I love, from Twelfth Night to Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and Les Misérables. When I was younger, I found Porgy & Bess to be a fun show—I loved Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.
Have you had people challenge your critical authority because of your race or ethnicity?
Chen: It depends on what I’m writing about. If I’m writing in a white voice and I reference a more classic piece of theatre, like Chekhov, then sometimes there’s tokenism. When I write a different kind of review, then people will say that because I’m Asian I don’t know what I’m talking about. I once had an editor say that they were afraid that I would be too emotional to write about Asian-American issues, but “I’m glad you were objective.” It implies that a white person is more qualified.
D’Souza: No, I’ve never had anything that dramatic happen. I think it’s more of a subtextual baggage that comes with you sometimes. My sense is that you kind of have to prove who you are and what you know more than other people.
Preston: Early in my career, I paid attention to people’s nervousness, and now I don’t pay attention to those things. People order their world in a certain way; I imagine my walking into a theatre disrupts those ideas for some people, and affirms those ideas for others.
Part of the gift that I have is those 11 years I spent in Jamaica. It gave me a confidence, and kind of a blind spot to the history that is baked into everything here. I think there are things that people intend to be ugly or racist things that I don’t recognize sometimes. I’m in the world celebrating the genius of all peoples. It’s all in what you carry. People will offer you their baggage, and you have to say, no thank you.
What will it take to diversify theatre criticism?
Chen: The field needs to be in a state of healthiness, and the field needs to understand that its path to health depends on historically marginalized voices. This depends on people no one really knows—the editors that supervise and hire theatre critics in major metropolitan areas. A lot of these newspaper editors are very private, and they are hard to get hold of. There has to be a way to say, “Hire us, promote us.”
D’Souza: It’s really hard to break into criticism no matter who you are, and if you are a woman of color the bar is that much higher to prove what you can do. White men get judged on their promise and the possibilities of what they can do. Women, especially women of color, are evaluated on what they have done. If it’s not already on your résumé, you’re likely not going to be given the opportunity to do it, and I think that’s the case in the American theatre in general. It’s a battle to prove that you’re worthy, and as the pool shrinks it just gets harder.
Preston: I think there has to be commitment by the powers that be—newspapers, magazines, websites—to change the dynamics in the field. Often, for young critics of color or female critics, the opportunities are not as readily available. Some people have to prove themselves with evidence of stuff they’ve done, and others are given an opportunity. Having opportunities for young people is important, and that has to come from editors, managers, and others who are hiring and making decisions.
BELOVED MUSICAL OR PLAY I DON’T LIKE Chen: West Side Story, because of the outdated racial tropes. D’Souza: I have never quite understood the appeal of the jukebox genre. My mom loves Mamma Mia!, and I have tried to investigate the source of her pleasure, but I still come away flummoxed. Preston: I don’t dislike Oklahoma!, but I’m not particularly fond of that show.
What’s the hardest part of being a theatre critic?
Chen: I’m 27 years old, and I want to grow and foster my own voice using the idea of mentorship and heroes. But the way everyone is retiring and being laid off—you don’t get to see anyone being the type of critic that you want to become. People say, just find your own voice, but you need that community of people who are lifting you up, and that really doesn’t exist. That has been really tough for me, and I think it has negatively impacted my criticism. If critics who are a part of the establishment are constantly worried about their jobs, then how can I, as a person of color, who is always more threatened, guarantee job security?
D’Souza: We’re in this dangerous anti-intellectual time in America. I think the arts will continue to flourish, but the discourse about them will get smaller and smaller. There is something lost in it being a profession where you can make an actual living. It’s kind of a side gig for people in our great gig economy where you don’t get dental. It’s unfortunate. I have a lot of friends who are dance critics, and the only ones who are still writing criticism are the ones who came from money.
Preston: In terms of getting started, the thing about this field is that you have to be driven, self-educating, curious about the world, and able to figure out a way to find your voice against other people’s voices. This is one of those jobs where you pave the road before you drive on it. There is no clear path. Once you’re in the field, you have to ask the questions. How do you sustain yourself? How do you stay fresh? How do you not overwork? The job requires you to write the equivalent of term papers several times a week, and have your readership be your professor. It’s wonderful to be engaged in a job that is all about the imagination, but it is also challenging to find the right balance of rest, time, and family.
What advice would you give to a young person interested in pursuing theatre criticism?
Chen: The most important thing for them to know is that you can’t just write criticism. You have to be a reporter first. You can’t just start spouting out your opinions, because being a reporter is the path to being a critic. It’s hard to convince someone who majored in acting or got an MFA studying the history of plays that they need to take a $28,000 a year job in the middle of North Dakota reporting on small rural crime. It’s hard to convince an arts person who lives in New York to move to a rural area to start a newspaper career.
D’Souza: It’s a lot like being a theatre actor. You do it because you have to, because you’re propelled to, because you don’t want to do anything else. You would never become a theatre actor out of any practical economic impulse. Criticism has become a little more like that, and perhaps that deepens one’s appreciation for it.
Preston: Be entrepreneurial. I had to be open to criticism, mentorship, and growth. The world of knowledge is so vast that you want to be as open as you can. It’s really a liberal-arts ideal, that you become a lifelong student. Be tenacious. Find a mentor. Find a critic you like and measure your voice against that voice, even if it means being in conversation or arguing with that critic. I would also encourage young critics to not lose heart. You will get better and stronger.
FAVORITE PLAYWRIGHTS Chen: Wallace Shawn, Lisa Kron, Amiri Baraka, Sarah Kane, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Stephen Adly Guirgis, and Lin-Manuel Miranda. D’Souza: That’s an endless list. Chekhov, Tony Kushner, Annie Baker, Enda Walsh, Luis Alfaro, Rinde Eckert, Paula Vogel, Sarah Ruhl, Marcus Gardley, Dominique Morisseau, Amy Herzog. I’d need a book to name them all. For me, this is a golden age for playwrights. Preston: Tarell Alvin McCraney is a brilliant writer. I love Dominique Morisseau. Caryl Churchill is a fascinating playwright. I also like Suzan Lori-Parks, Lynn Nottage, Jessica Dickey, Quiara Alegría Hudes, Larissa FastHorse, and Josh Wilder.
Kelundra Smith is an arts journalist based in Atlanta.