A Collective Call Against Critical Bias

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[image caption: Playwrights Lucas Hnath, Lynn Nottage, Paula Vogel , and J.T. Rogers nominated for Best Play Tony Award 2016-2017. Photo by Marc J. Franklin.]


I am one voice among two dozen signatories to this piece that addresses selected critical response to several New York shows in the 2016-2017 season, and raises some questions about the range of critical voices addressing contemporary American theater. The essay, authored by 24 academics, researchers, and yes a few critics, does not reflect the results of a national survey or social science research but uses some evidence to raise important questions. Originally published in HowlRound, June 26, 2017 — go to the original posting to read comments and to comment yourself, if moved to do so.


 

Much ado has been made of the fact that Paula Vogel and Lynn Nottage, two Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatists, finally cracked the glass ceiling this season. These theatre veterans made their long awaited Broadway debuts, with Indecent and Sweat, which both garnered Tony Award nominations for Best Play. Surprisingly little attention was paid, however, to the announcement that these productions—the only new works by women on the Great White Way this year—would close early, in large part because they were doomed by the male critical establishment.

Both productions were slated for early termination on June 25, but Indecent received a daring last minute reprieve by producer Daryl Roth, who, inspired by an upsurge in ticket sales, will keep the show open through August 6 (for a total of just sixteen weeks). In the wake of their closing notices, Vogel and Nottage took to social media to confront the critics. Vogel fired the first shot on Twitter, singling out Ben Brantley and Jesse Green of The New York Times for helping usher women offstage while ensuring the longevity of straight, white men, namely Lucas Hnath (A Doll’s House, Part 2) and J. T. Rogers, whose Oslo won the Tony, along with almost every other prize this year.

Nottage retweeted Vogel’s post with the heading “The patriarchy flexing their muscles to prove their power,” to underscore the profound gender disparity among the critical establishment, which is most noticeable among first-string critics at major outlets.

Subsequent tweets by Vogel make it clear that she welcomes criticism, and even appreciates “well written pans,” of her work. What she objects to is “a market manipulation that dismisses women and POC (people of color).” The complaint is not personal, in other words: it is structural. Individual critics are “not the enemy,” Vogel notes; there needs to be more “dialogue. We need a better way.”

A better way involves a consideration of resource allocation, or what Vogel calls “Basic math.” Let’s compare the annual budget of the Off-Broadway theatres where this season’s Tony nominated plays were developed. The Vineyard Theatre (Indecent) operates on a shoestring budget of a mere $3 million dollars per year. Then, the Public Theater (Sweat) has more than ten times this amount ($40 million), though it funds many more projects on multiple stages, including the free Shakespeare in the Park program. Lincoln Center (Oslo) commands a staggering coffer of $70 million, catering to a much more affluent audience. A Doll’s House, Part 2, bankrolled by producer Scott Rudin’s seemingly bottomless war chest, went straight to Broadway. While bigger budgets often result in higher production values and star-studded casts, they don’t guarantee better plays. We need a more expansive and informed notion of how critics come to decide what is “good,” and a more honest conversation about why “good” is often associated with plays by and about white men.

An Old Problem Made Urgent
As female artists and academics, we know that the tension between minority playwrights and critics is not a new problem. It’s a very old problem, one made newly urgent by biased reviews of productions by women and playmakers of color this season. We have dedicated our careers, in large part, to dismantling discriminatory structures and practices in theater, and the criticism this year is so blatantly prejudicial that we felt compelled to collectively author an editorial that both documents the problem and puts it in an historical context.

Take, for example, a full-page feature on Vogel and Nottage in The New York Times titled, “Two Female Playwrights Arrive on Broadway: What Took So Long?” The profile surveys a number of “theories about why their earlier plays never reached Broadway, from basic sexism to content, scale, or timing,” yet ignores the single most obvious factor: the paper’s own unbalanced evaluations of women’s work.

Despite the shower of accolades for both Sweat and Indecent, reception by The New York Times and the East Coast male critical establishment has been tepid at best. These plays, which tackle profound social, political, and ethical questions about racism and immigration, have been repeatedly and resoundingly lambasted for being too ambitious and too serious—accusations never leveled at work by men.

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Johanna Day, Alison Wright, Michelle Wilson in Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Price for Drama. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Brantley calls Nottage’s play a “bracingly topical portrait” of a vibrant multi-ethnic, working-class community fractured by industrial layoffs, which he faults for being “an old fashioned…socially conscious” drama that is “too conscientiously assembled.” Jesse Green, tapped by the Times to replace Charles Isherwood (who raved about the Off-Broadway runs of Sweat and Indecent), begins his Vulture review with an apology. While Sweat “is a lot of great things,” he decrees, “What it isn’t, I’m sorry to say, is a great play.” His reason: Nottage does too much research, attenuating the story’s “power in the very process of forcing the facts into drama.” Green dubs Sweat “gripping but disappointing.”

He also damns with faint praise Vogel’s Indecent, a metatheatrical exploration of Sholem Asch’s scandalous 1906 Yiddish drama, God of Vengeance, which featured the first lesbian kiss on Broadway. Green calls Vogel’s sweeping epic “the most ambitious” history play of the season, “and in all ways the least convincing.” Once again, Green apologizes for his critique. “I say that with sorrow and surprise—and yet not too much surprise,” he adds, noting that the transition to Broadway simply amplified the faults he found with the Off-Broadway production. The not so subtle subtext of Green’s reviews: keep it simple, ladies. Leave the big themes to the men.

Female Voices, Rare and Beleaguered 
Attempts to circumscribe women playwrights are not restricted to the TimesEdward Rothstein, writing for The Wall Street Journal, accuses Vogel of distorting “Asch, Yiddish theatre, and history,” when in actuality, he is the one who distorts all of those things in his review, which is astonishingly indifferent to the actual events on stage. Rothstein writes as if Asch’s God of Vengeance, were not, in fact, a schematic melodrama, or that Yiddish theatre did not critique hypocritical piety, and that immigrants did not return from the US to Europe, when history proves, thousands upon thousands did so. Most of all, Rothstein objects to a playwright—a female playwright—using her imagination and dramatic skills to create a play based on the past, telling a compelling history that speaks to the present moment.

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Adina Verson and Katrina Lenk in Paula Vogel’s Indecent. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

With Linda Winer’s resignation from Newsday, there are very few first-string female critics in the country. When a rare female critic’s voice is heard, she is prone to be attacked more frequently than her male peers. Jack Viertel, Artistic Director of New York City Center Encores!, issued a scathing rejoinder to Laura Collins-Hughes for raising questions about racial representation in the revival of Big River (the Tony award-winning musical adaptation of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huck Finn), in what was an essentially positive review. Viertel said nothing about Jesse Green’s critique, which made a similar point as Collins-Hughes. We can hardly imagine a situation in which Viertel would publicly humiliate a male critic, but we can point to a number of situations in which women and people of color are accused of harboring “myopic notions about…the place of racial and gender diversity” in the arts.

Notably, both productions of Sweat and Indecent are helmed by female directors. Kate Whoriskey made her Broadway debut in 2010 with The Miracle Worker. Rebecca Taichman, Vogel’s co-creator, took home the Tony Award for Indecent. The fact that Taichman was so visibly shaken when the award was announced is no wonder. It was her first Broadway show, and she is only the seventh woman in the history of the award to take home the prize (fourteen women since 2000 have been nominated in the directing category, compared to sixty-two men). An even rarer breed of artists, female directors have not fared well with the critical establishment, especially this year. Consider Hilton Als’s attack on Leigh Silverman‘s production of Sweet Charity. Als is often the most open-minded and culturally astute of the gatekeepers, but he, too, has slapped female artists’ hands for the sin, in his view, of trying to reach too high. In his condemnation of Silverman, he writes that her “problem is that she’s too serious about theatre” because “she wants her shows to count—to have a moral purpose.” Like Brantley, Green, and Rothstein, he doesn’t object to female artists’ failure to live up to high ideals (fair game for a critic), but to their very ambition.

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Indecent‘s Rebecca Taichman is only the seventh woman in history to
win the Tony for Best Director of a Play. Photo: David Gordon.

Fits and Starts Toward Gender and Racial Equity
Critical endorsements directly impact ticket sales and the length of a show’s run, in addition to making or breaking a playwright’s opportunity for future work. Women and people of color have about the same chance of seeing their plays produced today as they did before they had the right to vote. Racial and gender disparity is a chronic problem in the American theatre, from play selection and development to casting and production. Approximately 75 percent of the plays produced in this country have white male authors, and the numbers are even higher for Broadway, which is not everyone’s aspiration but it is where the greatest critical attention is focused and where the prestige, power, and money reside.

According to “The Count,” a detailed and ongoing study of not-for-profit regional theatres that asks “Who is Being Produced in America,” female-authored productions hover at 22 percent, with women of color writing just over 3 percent of all staged plays. The International Centre for Women Playwrights reports that the global outlook is equally bleak: less than 25 percent of the plays produced across the world have female authors. The situation is so dire that the ICWP bestows a prize, the 50/50 Applause Award, for theatres that produce seasons in which half (or more) of the shows are written by women.

Progress toward gender and racial equity has not come in a steady arc, but rather in fits and starts. This year marked only the fourth time in history when two women were nominated for Tony Awards for Best Play (1956, 1960, 2002, and 2017). In fact, in the seven decades that this prize has been given, forty-six of those years have included only male dramatists. Nottage and Vogel are only the ninth and tenth women, since 2000, to be nominated for Best Play.

While there are a number of awards honoring female playmakers (e.g., the Susan Smith BlackburnJane ChambersWendy Wasserstein, and Lilly Awards), as well as ample archives of plays by women (including the Kilroys List), we cannot hope to achieve parity in the theatre without a greater variety of critical voices. The American Theatre Critics Association supports women critics nationally and oversees several awards including the Primus Prize focused exclusively on female playwrights. Organizations like the Drama Desk support women in its ranks and demonstrate parity in staffing their board, nominating, and other committees. Yet the desired outcome of supported female critical voices in print and on-line outlets is as much aspiration as reality. In the ever-shrinking world of arts journalism, we call on news outlets to hire critics who reflect the diversity of the world in which we live.

Signed:

Gwendolyn Alker, New York University
Robin Bernstein, Harvard University
Meghan Brodie, Ursinus College
Jocelyn L. Buckner, Chapman University
Charlotte M. Canning, University of Texas at Austin
Soyica Colbert, Georgetown University
Jessica Del Vecchio, James Madison University
Jill Dolan, Princeton University
Miriam Felton-Dansky, Bard College
Lisa A. Freeman, University of Illinois at Chicago
Donatella Galella, University of California, Riverside
Holly Hughes, University of Michigan
Susan Jonas, 50/50 in 2020
Joan Lipkin, That Uppity Theatre Company
Lisa Merrill, Hofstra University
Jennifer-Scott Mobley, East Carolina University
Priscilla Page, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Jennifer Parker-Starbuck, University of Roehampton
Maya Roth, Georgetown University
Martha Wade Steketee, Freelance Dramaturg and Critic
Willa Taylor, Goodman Theatre
Lisa B. Thompson, University of Texas at Austin
Sara Warner, Cornell University
Stacy Wolf, Princeton University

Shortly after this article was published, several people have reached out to the authors in support of this call. There is now an online petition inspired by this article. To learn more about how you can support this call to action, click here.

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