Last Saturday, June 12, 2021, UTBA held one of its regular trainings for its reviewers. At some of these trainings, we invite outside guests to share their perspectives about important issues related to theatre criticism. This time, our guests were David John Chávez (an astute critic for Bay Area Plays and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association) and Camille Washington (the founder of Good Company Theatre in Ogden). The topic for the training was how to review plays created by diverse artists or that feature diverse actors. This issue is growing in importance in Utah and elsewhere.
Chávez and Washington had an interesting conversation about diversity, representation, and criticism in theatre. I have done my best to boil down their insights into 4 practical tips for reviewers and critics who see plays about or created by diverse communities (whether defined in terms of racial, gender, sexual, or other diversity).
- Chávez stated that a theatre reviewer and critic needs to work to ensure that their response to a play is “not lazy.” Too many critics see plays aimed at a different demographic group and say that a production is not good because they do not understand it. Chávez’s advice is for critics to “do your homework” and prepare themselves to understand the culture and/or message of the play. This may require research or having discussions with friends or others who belong to communities that are relevant to a play.
- Washington advised critics to talk about non-traditional casting decisions in an open and, when necessary, critical way. Casting an actor in a role traditionally played by individuals of another race or gender can have different impacts on a play. If it casting decision adds to the story, then critics should explore the consequences of the casting decision. When casting decisions are inappropriate (such as casting a white actor in a role that a playwright specifies should be filled by an actor of color), Washington urged reviewers to draw attention to these choices and explain why the decision would violate the integrity of the play.
Another suggestion that both Washington and Chávez had was to use reviews to public applaud theatre companies that give opportunities on stage and off to diverse artists. Many roles do not have a particular race specified for the actor to play them, but too many directors assume (often unconsciously) that this means that the role should be filled by a white actor. Chávez suggested that building shows that change the “American default” from being a white family “to something that looks different, like a Black family” can send a powerful message to the audience without changing a word of a script. Moreover, Washington stated that when directors cast diverse actors in these roles, it opens up opportunities to these performers that normally aren’t available. Both Chávez and Washington stated that commending this choice publicly tells producers and directors that such casting is appreciated and valued in the community.
- Finally, both Washington and Chávez stated how important it was to respond in an honest manner to all productions. Giving a positive review to a production merely because it discusses a diverse community’s issues is condescending. A negative review that misses the point of a production robs hardworking artists of the feedback they need. In Chávez’s words, “You can hate a play, but hate it for the right reasons. . . . Don’t hate it because you don’t understand it.” Washington said that, as a producer, she can tell when reviewers are making good faith critiques and working to respond thoughtfully to a play.
It was unfortunate that the training ended after an hour. In that time, the discussion touched on many aspects of creating and consuming theatre created by diverse artists. I have kept my recap focused on the practical tips in the hopes that theatre reviewers and critics can use this post as a quick guide to the basics for responding to theatre across racial and cultural lines.
UTBA’s trainings are open to the public and cover a variety of topics related to theatre criticism. The trainings are announced on Facebook and Twitter in the two weeks leading up training session. Please join us in the future.