Here’s a coincidental but significant fact that should be more widely known: St. Louis’s preeminent resident theatre, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, is now led by an African American woman, Hana S. Sharif, and the city’s paper of record, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, now has a Black man as its lead critic, Calvin Wilson. As the conversation around theatre criticism has heated up, one oft-noted contrast has been between, on the one hand, the tangible if halting strides U.S. theatres have made in diversifying their programming and leadership, and on the other hand the fields of theatre criticism and journalism, which have arguably lagged behind in this area (while also facing an existential crisis that seems both related and unrelated to this diversity problem).
But here, in a major American city in 2019, might we at last have a working model of what might happen when two of the city’s most important taste-makers are people of color? Actually, a similar situation obtains in the Twin Cities, where Rohan Preston is lead critic at the Star Tribune and Joseph Haj heads the Guthrie. It is otherwise a rarity—but, we hope, not for long.
Wilson, who started at the job nearly a year ago after longtime critic Judith Newmark retired, is a St. Louis native, though his career as a journalist has taken him all over the U.S. in the intervening years. I spoke with him a few weeks ago by phone about his background, his tastes (more on that subject here), and his sense of responsibility to his city and its theatres.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: You were already at the paper, is that right?
CALVIN WILSON: I’ve been an arts writer at the Post-Dispatch since 2000, and up until recently I was the film critic here until Judith Newmark retired and I took over theatre.
I’ve read that you spent some time in New York.
Yeah, back in the ’70s and ’80s I used to go to the Public Theater a lot, Playwrights Horizons, a lot of Off-Broadway-type stuff. That was something new for me. I grew up in St. Louis—it’s a coincidence I’m back here working, actually—and I wasn’t ever a theatre person. So going to see those shows Off-Broadway was a revelation for me.
One show I remember in particular was Ed Bullins’s The Taking of Miss Janie, at Lincoln Center during the brief time Public was running it. That had a lot of impact on me. I don’t know if you know Ed’s work; I guess you could call it heightened realism, very theatrical, as opposed to straight-up realism. It was a very funny play about the death of ’60s idealism and racial problems people were having.
How did you get into journalism originally?
I was going to Southern Illinois University at the time, where I got a Masters degree in urban studies. I heard about this summer program for minority journalists at UC Berkeley; I saw a billboard about it with Bill Moyers’s face on it. Aside from the journalism angle, I was excited because it was going to be near San Francisco and other people were going to pay for it. I applied for it and went through two rounds of interviews, wrote dummy news stories. After I was in that program, I was briefly at Stuart News in Florida, then in 1987, I got a job at the Kansas City Star as a general assignment reporter.
And you covered everything there?
City hall, neighborhood stuff, all that. Then I became a general assignment arts writer. I left the Star in 2000; let’s just say I was unhappy with management. That’s how I got to the Post-Dispatch.
Do you like being back home in St. Louis?
It’s fair to say that my sensibility from living in New York for some time is more of an East Coast sensibility. But there are good things to say about the Midwest.
How is covering theatre different from writing about film?
For one thing when you’re writing about film, there’s not a local connection; you don’t have to deal with local people. With theatre you have to keep in mind that you’re writing for this community.
And you might run into the people you review at the store.
I will say this about the local theatre community: I’ve seen very little that I would consider absolutely bad. About 80 percent of the time, I can find something good to say about a production. That’s different than being enthusiastic about it.
Can you think of some recent highlights?
Last year Mustard Seed Theater did a wonderful production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, our main regional theatre, does a lot of fine work. There’s a lot more theatre here than even people in our town would realize. There are at least 15 to 20 companies here that are always working on something.
How often are you seeing shows for review?
It can be variable. I can have a week where there are five or six things to see, then nothing.
And how often does the paper print your reviews?
I’ll write pieces for the Friday weekend guide, also for the Sunday arts section. In weekend guide, I’ll do an interview with Paula Vogel, as one local company is doing Indecent. Recently, because someone was doing True West, I did a big piece on Sam Shepard. I always have a lot of things to write about.
Do you feel supported by your newspaper?
I’ll put it like this: Most newpsapres aren’t big on arts critics, and ours still has an arts section. The Friday weekend guide is more an entertainment guide, but it has some arts-related articles. The emphasis for the Sunday section is more fine arts than popular entertainment.
Do you also do reporting on the local scene, as well as reviews?
We’ll do newsier stuff. There’s an organization here called the Regional Arts Commission, and it was brought to my attention that one company that had gotten money consistently in previous years got zero dollars last year. Part of it, the company thought, was the new person who was running the commission. That was a piece I did last year. And I’ve done a couple of pieces about Steven Woolf leaving as artistic director of the Rep and Hana Sharif taking it over.
But the bulk of the job is writing about productions and saying how good or bad I think they are. I’ll also try to bring perspective to it. The Lucas Hnath play Death Tax—I called it Hitchcock mets Pinter. Pinter doesn’t make it into headlines very often. So I always try to reference theatre stuff that the average reader might not know. There’s only so much depth I can go into. Sometimes it’s all you can do to talk about what’s going on in a show.
St. Louis is known in part as a musical theatre town, because of the Muny, the Fox, even New Line. Are you a fan of musicals as well as drama?
I like good things. But I’m fair. The Fox, which is the theatre where tours come, had a production of Aladdin, and I liked it better than Come From Away. I was looking forward to that one—maybe it had been overhyped? So much of it is about what your expectations are going in. I’m not looking for Aladdin to be enlightening and life-changing. If they’ve got a great flying carpet, you’re set.
Is there original work being done in St. Louis that you champion?
I’ve seen a lot of original work here that was really good—work that people came up with themselves. But also versions of existing plays that are relatively new, like Last Days of Judas Iscariot. Some of the companies here do really fine stuff, and part of what I’m trying to do is get more people here to realize that. The way I look at it, there are people who just wanna see a show, and there are theatre people. There’s some overlap between those two groups, but not a lot. Some people want to see a big, bombastic play, an Aladdin, and they’re not looking to see No Exit. I’m always glad to see people do Shepard or Mamet, and then there are playwrights I would like to see done here—Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is one. As far as I know, he has not been produced here. I could be wrong; I may have missed it.
It strikes me that by naming what kind of theatre you’d like to see, someone in St. Louis might take you up on it. Do you feel like you have power to shape the local scene that way?
I don’t know if anyone’s really concerned about putting on a show that I would like. Maybe based on what I’ve written before, they’ll get a sense that I might support what they’re doing. An example would be Indecent. It was on Broadway but it’s not necessarily a show the public knows much about.
Hana Sharif is running the Rep, and she’s part of new generation of leaders who are women and people of color. And as one of the few critics of color at major U.S. newspapers, and being also new to the job, you also represent a certain changing of the guard. Do you see it that way? And are you excited to cover the Rep under this new leadership?
I think it’s an interesting coincidence. And I think Hana has put together an interesting schedule, which is fair to say is very different from what the Rep audeince is used to. We’ll see how they respond. Personally I’m looking foward to Angels in America and The Lifespan of a Fact. The others I’m not necessarily familiar with, so we’ll see how that plays out.
One thing Rosalind Early wrote about St. Louis for us is that it’s a very far-flung, disparate scene. Does that seem right to you?
Most of the theatre companies don’t have their own spaces; a lot of them perform in churches, for example. I used to live in Kansas City, which has Kansas City Rep and the Unicorn Theatre, which is an alternative to the Rep. We don’t have a comparable alternative company to the Rep that has that kind of stature, not just yet. A person looking for theatre here really has to be paying attention to know what’s available.
Are you going to travel to cover theatre outside St. Louis? I happened to meet you in April at the Humana Festival in Louisville.
I’m thinking about going to Chicago. As you know, they do a ton of work. My editors are happy for me to do anything I want to do. Like Humana—I don’t think we’d done anything on that before.
What did you think of the work at Humana, by the way?
I liked Dave Harris’s Everybody Black. I was talking with a local theatre professor, who thought it was like an update of The Colored Museum—which is not a putdown. I liked the Lucas Hnath play, The Thin Place. I’m not sure it exactly worked, but I thought it was interesting. Even if something doesn’t work, if it’s interesting it’s worth seeing.
Do you miss reviewing movies?
I don’t see a lot anymore. My wife thinks we should only spend money at a movie theatre where things are blowing up; if it’s people talking we can see that at home. So Avengers Endgame, John Wick—those are the kinds of movies where the megascreen makes a difference.
Have you had any critical models over the years?
I always thought that Roger Ebert didn’t get enough credit for being a fine critic. He wrote about films in such a way that you could get a lot out of his writing even if you weren’t interested in the films themselves. I don’t write in such a way that it’s going to ruin the play for a person. I want to give a sense of the thing; I’m not going to give you a blow by blow. It’s not just spoilers.
Finally, how do you think your own background informs your approach to criticism?
Me being who I am, there’s going to be stuff I’m interested in that someone who’s not African American won’t be. The thing about theatre, when actors and playwrights are doing it right, is that it’s inherently about some kind of universality. Whether I’m seeing Oedipus Rex or Othello, it’s all about the emotions and ambitions people have. Everybody brings their background to everything that they do. Yeah, there are going to be differences, and there are going to be similarities. You might as well as compare me as an American to what a Parisian would think. We’ll all see plays differently because of our different backgrounds.