HENRIETTA MCFARLANE, HOST:
Theater critics are now examining their own profession. They say criticism has a problem, it’s mostly male and overwhelmingly white. So It’s vital that the next generation of critics include people of color. They say that more diverse critics will make theater more accessible. And as Elizabeth Erb reports they’re shaking things up.
ELIZABETH ERB, BYLINE:
Inside the Vivian Beaumont theater at Lincoln Center the lobby is packed.
The theater goers are here to see the musical Camelot and conversation is buzzing. But when you ask some critics to look at this crowd they see a problem. Like Des’ree Brown. I sent her some videos from inside and asked her to describe the audience.
DES'REE BROWN: From the videos that you happened to capture, not particularly white, older… cis women…
Which Brown says is typical of the makeup of many Broadway audiences. Brown, like all the critics I spoke to in this piece, identifies as a person of color. She says lack of diversity is an issue that many arts organizations are struggling with.
Arts institutions are really grappling with what their audiences look like. They’re trying to hit a certain demographic. Most of the time it’s younger folks or it happens to be people of color, black and brown folks and people who have been rarely seen in these audiences.
ERB: Bringing in a more diverse audience is a complicated issue. There’s many potential hurdles like ticket prices that can run into the hundreds of dollars. But since many theater goers read reviews before they buy tickets, Brown feels the way in which criticism is written and who writes it is one key way to diversify audiences.
One of the conversations that is rarely held is who are the folks that are talking about these shows? Because that also actively affects what the audiences look like. Because people gravitate to who they trust, who they listen to. And sometimes it comes from the language that a critic speaks in the way that they speak.
And that’s why she and fellow critic, Ekemini Ekpo, have just launched “Keep Your Change,” an online publication of New York theater reviews.
Writing reviews in a way that’s not so committed to the kind of stuffy paradigms of I’m a critic writing for the New York Times, so every other word has to be a SAT word.
Ekpo is after a more diverse audience: like more young people and people of color so her reviews aren’t your typical reviews.
The casual tone when we talk about theater with our peers is the kind of tone that we try to write with.
The two met through BIPOC Critics Lab.
A new program to train the next generation of diverse critics.
The program was founded in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd and the racial justice movements that followed. All of this emerging work comes at a critical time not just for theater. In the fine arts world, several board members of the international association of arts critics have resigned over the organization’s failure to enact a diversity plan. Including visual arts critic Seph Rodney.
AICA really needs to be oriented in the direction of diversity, equity, access, and inclusion although they’ve made noises about this. They don’t do anything practically to get there.
And for New York theater, the lack of diversity in criticism is clear. Just look at who's on staff for major publications. TDF Stages critic Juan Michael Porter II even put together a graph to illustrate the problem.
JUAN MICHAEL PORTER II:
Where I took the photo of every single lead critic for any Broadway show. There can be 30 writers. And only five people could be not white.
ERB: As part of his graph, he listed the five critics. PORTER: Linda Armstrong at Amsterdam News, Vincent Cunningham at The New Yorker,
Maya Philips at New York Times, me, when I was at a number of publications and Ayanna Prescod.
More diverse shows are being produced on Broadway, like Fat Ham.
[Fat Ham Ambi]
A Hamlet inspired play about Black masculinity and queerness. But Porter says the reviews that were written after its recent opening were by overwhelmingly white journalists.
More white people wrote about that show than black people. And you start to wonder why is that who made that choice? And it is the publications that make that choice. You can say like, well they have a staff writer on hand, and does it really make sense for a staff writer with no lived experience to comment on it? Are you going to hire someone who’s never driven a car to be your car mechanic?
Des’ree Brown, the young writer, says her new publication is one answer to this problem.
As the theater world is beginning to shift and morph and include voices of people of color and more shows and stories surrounding people of color. I would just love to hear someone from my community speak of what they thought of that show.
But Brown also says there’s room for everyone.
We are not here to put down other critics who just happen to be white. We just want to include ourselves into that conversation. And if we’re not invited to that conversation we’ll surely just pull up a chair and sit down anyways.
As the Tony Award season approaches, Brown and Ekpo will continue to write their reviews. They hope more young writers of color will join them. Elizbeth Erb, Columbia Radio News.