Note: Upon re-reading this, I’m irritated by how rant-y it is, and have added what I hope is a fairly succinct post-script at the end.
For the past two days, the theater Internet has been blowing up in response to a pair of reviews—published in the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times respectively—harshly criticizing Steppenwolf’s production of Idris Goodwin and Kevin Coval’s This Is Modern Art (based on a true story). A number of issues are in play at once: the role of the critic in responding to art, the obligation of art to uphold the moral good when oriented to children, racial privilege and bias, and, somewhere in there, the merits of street art.
Unfortunately all of this has proven quite difficult to unpack, mainly because Hedy Weiss’s review in the Sun-Times is not only blatantly racist but easily one of the dumbest reviews anyone’s read in a major newspaper in recent memory. This is unfortunate in that it distracts from the more pertinent issues at play across both. The Tribune’s Chris Jones is not overtly racist in his review, giving it the gloss of relative acceptability despite its dubious (at best) moral argument against the play, so it becomes hard if not actually unfair to treat him as on the same side of a debate as the wholly objectionable Weiss.
What the whole thing adds up to, though, is the single greatest indictment of the sorry state of American theater criticism I can imagine. This may not be the most important point (the racial dynamics at play are just plain ugly and ignorant) but the fact these reviews exist demonstrates the complete lack of fucks everyone involved in their publication–from author to editor to publisher–don’t have to give for theater criticism. Continue reading