Commentary: In The UK and US, Bias Infects Theatre Reviews

Alec Newman, Ricardo Chavira & Yul Vázquez in The Motherf***er With The Hat at the National Theatre

Alec Newman, Ricardo Chavira & Yul Vázquez in The Motherf***er With The Hat at the National Theatre

“You can’t draw sweet water from a foul well,” critic Brooks Atkinson wrote of his initial reaction to the musical Pal Joey. I don’t know whether Christopher Hart of The Sunday Times in London knows this famous quote, but it certainly seems to summarize his approach to reviewing the London premiere of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s The Motherf***er With The Hat, which one can safely say is light years more profane than the Rodgers and Hart musical.

“A desperately boring play,” “an absolute stinker of a play,” “untrammelled by such boring bourgeois virtues as self-restraint or good manners,” “turgid tripe,” and “a pile of steaming offal,” are among the phrases Hart deploys about Guirgis’s Hat. While I happen to not agree with him (and admittedly I saw the Broadway production, not the one on at the National Theatre), he is entitled to these opinions. It may not be particularly nuanced criticism, but it’s his reaction. There are other British critics with opposing views (The Guardian and The Independent), and some who agree (Daily Mail), so there’s no consensus among his colleagues. But within his flaying of the play, Hart reveals classist, racist and nationalist sentiments that, however honestly he may be expressing them, prove why he is unable to assess the play on its own terms, empathizing with its flawed characters, as any good critic should endeavor to do.

Take this example: “Like the white working class in this country, the PRs in America have picked up a lot of black patois.” Even allowing for differences in language between England and the U.S., referring to residents of Puerto Rico and “the PRs” is patently offensive, and also hopelessly out of date, all at once. The statement also suggests that Puerto Ricans are in some way foreign, when the island itself has been part of America for more than a century; it’s perhaps akin to saying “the Welsh in Great Britain” as if they’re alien. When he parses “black patois” as the difference between saying “ax instead of ask,” Hart presents himself as Henry Higgins of American pronunciations, which I strongly suspect he picked up from watching American television and film, without any real understanding of racial culture or linguistics here – and he generalizes condescendingly about a huge swath of the British populace for good measure.

Hart also refers to the “very brief entertainment to be had in trying to work out” the ethnic background of the character Veronica, first musing that she might be “mixed race African American” but acknowledging her as Puerto Rican “when her boyfriend calls her his ‘little taino mamacita’.” I don’t know why he was fixated on this issue, presumably based on a parsing of the skin color of the actress in the role, especially since the play provided him with the answer (though the same problem has afflicted U.S. critics encountering Puerto Rican characters as well). Would that he were more focused on the character and story. He briefly describes the plot as being about “one Veronica, who lives in a scuzzy apartment off Times Square, snorts coke and sleeps around. Oh, and she shouts a lot.” In point of the fact, the play is an ensemble piece, and if any one character dominates, it’s Jackie, the ex-con struggling to fight his addictions and set his life straight.

After going off on a tear about the play’s profanity, Hart makes a comment about the play’s dialogue, saying, “A lot of it is ass-centred, in that distinctive American way.” As an American, I have to say that I’m unfamiliar with our bum-centric obsession, outside of certain pop and rap songs, even if Meghan Trainor is all about that bass. But hey, I’ve only lived here my whole life, and spent 13 of those years living and working in New York, a melting pot of culture and idiom. What do I know?

I don’t happen to read Hart with any regularity, but my colleague at The Stage, Mark Shenton, has noted his tendency to antagonistic hyperbole in the past, having called Hart out for separate reviews of Cabaret and Bent which both seem puritanical and, in the latter case, homophobic. While I peruse a number of UK papers online, both via subscription and free access, even my limited exposure to Hart’s rhetoric suggests that The Sunday Times is an outlet whose paywall I shall happily leave unbreached.

I was actually going to shrug off the ugliness of the Hat review, but only about an hour after I read it, I came across some letters to the editor in The Boston Globe, responding to a review of A. Rey Pamatmat’s Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them at Company One Theatre. While I don’t think the critic in this case, Jeffrey Gantz, was trying to be inflammatory (as I’m fairly certain Hart was), he revealed his own biases in seemingly casual remarks. Noting that two of the characters are Filipino-American, he wrote:

They make the occasional reference to their favorite Filipino dishes, but I wish more of their culture was on display, and it seems odd that they have no racial problems at school.

Maria Jan Carreon and Gideon Bautista in Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them at Company One Theatre

Maria Jan Carreon and Gideon Bautista in Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them at Company One Theatre

Not every character with a specific racial or ethnic origin need demonstrate it for our consumption on stage; it may not be germane to the play or perhaps the characters created by Pamatmat are more steeped in American culture than Filipino. The statement is the equivalent of saying about me, were I a character, that though I mention matzoh ball soup and pastrami, it would be nice if I spoke more Yiddish, wore a yarmulke, or waxed rhapsodic about my bar mitzvah. My grandparents were all immigrants to the U.S., so I’m only second generation American, not so far removed from another culture and schooled at length in my religion, but I don’t constantly remind people of those facts.

As for not experiencing intolerance at school, Gantz must have a singular idea of what every young person who is not white experiences on a daily basis. That’s not to say that there isn’t ugliness and ignorance directed at people of color far too regularly at every level of American life, but perhaps that isn’t germane to the story Pamatmat wants to tell or part of the personal experience he draws upon (he’s from Michigan, incidentally). It’s not as if “racial problems” for students of color are an absolute rule of dramaturgy that must be obeyed.

That said, it’s ironic that Gantz criticizes the play for taking on “easy targets, notably bigotry and bad parents.” The fraught relationship between parents and children has been the fodder of drama since the Greeks, and it seems an endlessly revelatory subject; as for bigotry, if it is perceived as an “easy” subject, then perhaps Gantz, despite wishing “racial problems” on the characters, has no real understanding of the complexity of race in America and the many forms bigotry can take, enough to fuel 1,000 plays and playwrights or more. But he’s complaining that Pamatmat hasn’t written the play that Gantz wants to see, rather than assessing the one that was written.

I can’t speak to the general editorial slant of The Sunday Times, so while Hart’s recent rant may be in keeping with the paper’s character, I don’t think the implicit racial commentary of Gantz’s review is consistent with the social perspective of The Boston Globe. That leads me to wonder, as I have before, what role editors play when racial bias appears in reviews, such as in a Chicago Sun-Times review that appeared to endorse racial profiling. Yes, these reviews are each expressions of one person’s opinion, but they are also, by default, opinions which are tacitly endorsed by the paper itself. Reading these reviews just after following reports from the Americans in the Arts and Theatre Communications Group conferences, which demonstrated a genuine desire on the part of arts institutions to address diversity and inclusion, I worry that if the arbiters of art continue to judge work based on retrograde social views, it will only slow progress in the field that, as it is, has already been too long in coming.

Howard Sherman is the senior strategy consultant at the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts

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