The Chicago theater community is comprised of a diverse group of artists who have worked hard to create a safe, healthy environment to practice art in.
Over the last few years especially, we have joined together to make it clear that inappropriate language or behavior does not have a place within our community, and that prejudice of any kind will not stand.
Hedy Weiss, theater critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, has proven that she is not willing to work with us to create a positive environment. She has proven this repeatedly with the racism, homophobia, and body shaming found in her reviews. She has proven this by never, not once, apologizing to a party injured by her words.
Since we believe that it is the duty of everyone in our community to uphold our very high standard for conduct, we formally request that your company not invite Hedy Weiss to the run of any present or future productions.
Shortly after the review was published, the Chicago Theater Accountability Coalition launched a Change.org online petition to marshal the resources of the Chicago theater community to deny Weiss free press access to their productions.
At the writing of this article, the petition had garnered more than 3,500 signatures. In the petition, the organization noted:
But, for all the many and varied causes we know so well, much of the lion’s share of the violence is perpetrated within the community itself. Nwandu’s simplistic, wholly generic characterization of a racist white cop (clearly meant to indict all white cops) is wrong-headed and self-defeating. Just look at news reports about recent shootings (on the lakefront, on the new River Walk, in Woodlawn) and you will see the look of relief when the police arrive on the scene. And the playwright’s final scenes — including a speech by the clueless white aristocrat who appears earlier in the story — and who could not be more condescending to Steppenwolf’s largely white “liberal” audience — further rob the play of its potential impact.
Broadwayworld.com has published a summary of prior controversial Weiss reviews, which have elicited similar criticism.
They include a review commending a Chicago area production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights for its, “unusually ‘authentic’ cast.” The production was led by a Caucasian actor playing a Dominican character; and a 2004 review of playwright Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change, where Weiss called Kushner a “self-loathing Jew.” The comment drew a fervent response from the playwright. And in a 2013 review of Jonas Hassen Khamiri’s play Invasion, which dealt with the topic of racial profiling of Muslims, citing the Boston Marathon bombing, Weiss posed the questions, “What practical alternative to racial profiling do you suggest?”
As one might expect, readers from all over the country have chimed in with comments on all sides of this controversy—some pointing out that critical reviews are simply the nature of the beast in theater and that thicker skins are warranted for companies and playwrights who invite professional reviewers—who owe a debt to the audiences, not the productions—still others insist that audiences are entitled to critical reviews that are not filtered through the callous lens of hatred, intolerance and prejudice, masking political and bigoted rhetoric in artistic review.
For their part, Steppenwolf Theatre posted an unofficial response to Weiss’ review on their Facebook Page. Excerpted from the response, Artistic Director Anna D. Shapiro and Executive Director David Schmitz, noted on behalf of Steppenwolf Theatre:
By Isaac Jacobs
Veteran Chicago Sun-Times theater critic Hedy Weiss has been assailed online as of late due to what a group named the Chicago Theater Accountability Coalition calls a pattern of “racism, homophobia, and body shaming” prevalent in her sometimes controversial theater reviews.
A small firestorm has been brewing for some time over the, at times, incendiary language included in her reviews, but it became white-hot after a recent scathing review of playwright Antoinette Nwandu’s latest work, Pass Over, receiving its world premiere this summer at Steppenwolf Theatre.
Nwandu’s new work is a timely take on Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. In Pass Over, however, two African-American men are waiting on a street corner passing the time, pondering their paths and hoping to avoid the cycle of demise young men in their community are all too often swept up in. Along comes a racist police officer, and a lyrical and emotional confrontation ensues that derails their plans for a different future.
In Weiss’ review of the work, she wrote:
Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
Veteran Sun-Times theater critic Hedy Weiss (photo courtesy of the American Association of Theatre Critics).
Antoinette Nwandu’s play is unapologetic in its point of view. She was brave to write it, and our actors are impossibly courageous to stand up every night and perform it.
We are remarkably proud of the work of these artists and proud to present it on our stage.
We knew that it would be provocative and hoped that what would follow would be active, engaged conversations that would first lead to compassion and then, hopefully, to individual and institutional action. That is the power of theater at its most potent, its most raw, its most effecting and that’s what we believed in with the programming of PASS OVER.
Some of the critical responses from this work have been shocking – not because of the actual critique of the art, but in the way that the responses revealed at best the ignorance of the critic and at worst, a racial bias that, when captured in print, wounded many people of color in this community and their allies, and served as a horrendous reminder of how far we still have to come in terms of racial equity in this community.
We denounce the viewpoints expressed in some of these reviews as they fail to acknowledge the very systemic racism that PASS OVER addresses directly. Particularly egregious are the comments from Sun Times critic Hedy Weiss, whose critical contribution has, once again, revealed a deep seated bigotry and a painful lack of understanding of this country’s historic racism. Her contribution is actively working against the kind of theater we are striving to be.
The theater has announced that an official response to the controversy is forthcoming.
The Chicago Tribune has reported that neither Weiss nor the arts editor for the Sun-Times have responded to requests for comment.