It’s a basic principle of mainstream cultural journalism that artists should not pick which critics review them. But should artists be allowed to choose which colour of critic reviews them?
That is the hot potato thrown to all the Toronto newspapers, magazines and online outlets that cover theatre this week by Yolanda Bonnell, an up-and-coming Anishinaabe and South Asian playwright and performer.
On Tuesday night, her play bug – which had a short run at the 2018 Luminato festival, resulting in a Dora Mavor Moore Award nomination for outstanding new play – opens for a two-week run at Theatre Passe Muraille, and only certain critics have been invited.
Here’s how the statement I initially received from Bonnell put it: “There is an aspect to cultural work – or, in our case, artistic ceremony – which does not align with current colonial reviewing practices. In order to encourage a deeper discussion of the work, we are inviting critiques or thoughts from IBPOC [Indigenous, Black and People of Colour] folks only.”
I’ve admired Bonnell’s work since seeing her breakout performance in a revival of The Crackwalker at Factory Theatre in 2015 and was planning to review this play for The Globe and Mail. But I’m also white – and, says Bonnell’s statement, “there is a specific lens that white settlers view cultural work through and, at this time, we’re just not interested in bolstering that view, but rather the thoughts and views of fellow marginalized voices and in particular Indigenous women."
I spoke to Bonnell about this on the phone last week, and she explained that she’s been thinking about something like this for a long time. “There was a very problematic review for Luminato’s version of bug,” she said. The play is about a woman "navigating her way through her intergenerational trauma while being followed by … the physical manifestation of her addictions.
“It’s not the first time I’ve been in shows that have been reviewed with problematic, culturally specific comments.”
Bonnell was also inspired by working out west with Indigenous artist Kim Senklip Harvey on her show Kamloopa: An Indigenous Matriarch Story. No reviewers were invited to that show – though “love letters” were solicited from Indigenous women. “I saw the effect of that," Bonnell said.
It would be much easier to be outraged at my non-invitation to Bonnell’s opening night, of course, if I could name a single Indigenous theatre critic regularly working in Toronto.
Or if I wasn’t aware that there is, indeed, a long history of white critics making racist, sexist and homophobic comments. The recent obituaries for former New York magazine critic John Simon rehashed some of his most hateful lines. He once wrote, heinously, of Barbra Streisand that she was “the sort of thing that starts pogroms." Hard to believe that was ever printable.
I also can’t deny that my “white settler lens” shapes how I experience theatre. I recall, for instance, tearing up at Wendy Lill’s The Glace Bay Miners’ Museum the moment a character began to sing a lullaby in Gaelic that my Irish grandmother used to sing to me.
And, of course, that lens can also distort. I cringe now at a dismissive review I wrote back in 2008, comparing a run-of-the-mill production of Twelfth Night at Soulpepper with what I did not even realize was one of the first all-Indigenous performances of Shakespeare, a Native Earth Performing Arts adaptation of Julius Caesar called Death of a Chief. “Shakespeare done right – and wrong,” the headline read. That was theatre criticism done wrong.
Bonnell is not the first artist to attempt to shape critical reaction to her work, but her provocative policy comes at a time when theatre criticism has been disrupted, creating the conditions for Theatre Passe Muraille to agree to this.
“Not too long ago, there was a very strong hierarchical structure and the perceived power really lived in print media,” said TPM’s new artistic director, Marjorie Chan, who remembers waiting up all night for reviews to come out. “Everyone read the newspapers, everyone checked the reviews – that’s just not the way people buy tickets any more.”
In the past decade, when theatre critics retired at the National Post and the Toronto Sun, they weren’t replaced; last week came the news that the Toronto Star was cutting back on its arts coverage altogether. According to Chan, the correlation between reviews and ticket sales has broken down. She can name shows that received rave reviews and played to half-empty houses and others that were panned and sold out.
If even good reviews have less value at the box office, why trade a complimentary ticket or two for the risk of getting a bad (negative or ignorant) review? Especially given that a bad review might not just ruin your morning, as it did in the old days, but might tarnish your Google search results for the next decade or two?
I don’t work for any theatre company, so that isn’t and can’t be my concern. I’m also one of the few remaining professionals who can buy a ticket and review a show worth telling our readers about – even if I’m not invited.
“Nobody’s banned,” Chan said. “There aren’t headshots of critics at the box office."
It will certainly be interesting to see what individual outlets decide to do about Bonnell’s request. A hot potato, like I said.
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