Theater critic faces backlash over remarks on Chicago play

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Chicago Sun-Times theater critic Hedy Weiss—a 30-plus-year veteran of one of the country’s most vibrant theater communities—is under fire, and not for the first time.

A group of local actors and playwrights calling themselves the Chicago Theater Accountability Coalition have started a petition against her on Change.org. The mission: Have the city’s theaters refuse to provide Weiss her usual complimentary reviewing tickets. The petition has nearly 3,500 signatures.

And last week, Steppenwolf—the city’s fabled ensemble—delivered a formal letter denouncing Weiss’s review of its most recent production. The letter actually began with the words, “We denounce….”

The issue, her critics say: a history of racially insensitive remarks in Weiss columns, along with newer offenses in the realm of “body-shaming.”

The catalyst for the current dispute is Weiss’s take on Steppenwolf’s new play, Pass Over, a politically charged look at police harassment of young black men. It was an “inspired” play, she wrote, and “brilliantly acted.” But the play went aground in the last 10 minutes, she wrote, “clubbing its audience over the head.” Then Weiss took on the play’s politics: “No one can argue with the fact that this city … has a problem with the use of deadly police force against African-Americans. But … much of the lion’s share of the violence is perpetrated within the community itself.”

If theater practitioners want safety, they should practice their craft behind closed doors.

Steppenwolf’s response, signed by artistic director Anna D. Shapiro and executive director David Schmitz: “Hedy Weiss[‘s] critical contribution has, once again, revealed a deep seated bigotry and a painful lack of understanding of this country’s historic racism.”

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The flashpoint seems to have been Weiss’s mention of “black-on-black violence,” a well-worn right-wing media talking point, and certainly irrelevant to the issue of police treating black and white citizens differently. Besides a few recent instances of Chicago police shooting unarmed black men, the city also has the distinction of a well-documented history of police torture rooms designed to produce extra-legal confessions to send innocent black men to prison.

Weiss has made unsophisticated remarks with a racial tinge in the past. Reviewing a 2013 work about the racial profiling of Muslims, Weiss cited the Boston Marathon bombing and asked, “What practical alternative to racial profiling do you suggest?” (The paper reportedly removed the line from the online version of the story; it now does not seem to be available at all. The original can be read here.) As far back as 2005, she raised eyebrows for a questionable assertion about Tony Kushner’s play Caroline, or Change. Weiss branded Kushner a “self-hating Jew.” Kushner took great offense. Weiss had previously tangled with Kushner over his positions on Israeli politics. Weiss later denied that had anything to do with her review, but no other take I could find on the show ascribed such crayon-worthy motivations to Kushner.

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Other complaints about Weiss have been simmering. An actor named Bear Bellinger contributed a post to Medium in which he said he would not perform in a play in front of Weiss. (Bellinger had some skin in the game; he was cast in an upcoming production of the prestigious Goodman Theater.) Weiss has also been attacked for contrasting the “perfect bodies” of a chorus line with the “‘real women’ figures” in a review of a revival of Mamma Mia!.

Watching on the sidelines has been Weiss’s counterpart at the Chicago Tribune, Chris Jones, a 15-year veteran in that position. While allowing that any theater group could give or not give tickets to anyone it liked, he noted that the Steppenwolf attack was severe.

“The statement—”deep-seated bigotry”?—I’ve never seen an attack like that on a journalist from an arts organization,” Jones says.

Jones’ own review of Pass Over was more sympathetic: “Waiting for Godot meets Black Lives Matter,” he wrote. Of Weiss’s review, he said, “It was an opinion about a play that was designed to shock and provoke. You can’t do that and then say we’re trying to get rid of the person with that opinion.”

Weiss herself declined to comment, other than this observation to CJR via email: “All I can say is that the theater is obviously not exempt from the general state of the world right now. And none of it is very pretty.”

At their worst, Weiss’s remarks betray a strident and somewhat simplistic political bent from the right of the mainstream. But it’s probably safe to say that most theater critics are liberal, and have presumably contributed their own stridency from time to time.

Indeed, the Change.org petition contains an infelicity in its very first sentence that reads as out of touch as any of Weiss’s remarks: “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.”

Theater is of course a highly public endeavor, and the world outside is a big bad place, with lions and tigers and critics who have opinions. If its practitioners want safety, they should practice their craft behind closed doors.

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Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of NPR and Salon.com. Follow him @hitsville.