In the UK and US, bias infects theatre reviews

In Broadway, London theatre, Native, Opinion, Plays, Quotes, Reviews by Howard ShermanLeave a Comment

In his Theatre Addicts diary this week, Mates co-founder Mark Shenton took umbrage with The Sunday Times’ critic Christopher Hart’s review of American playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’ latest play The Motherf**ker With the Hat. Now American blogger Howard Sherman, who saw the play on Broadway, offers his analysis – and spots a wider trend…


“You can’t draw sweet water from a foul well,” critic Brooks Atkinson wrote of his initial reaction to the musical Pal Joey. I don’t know whether Christopher Hart of The Sunday Times in London knows this famous quote, but it certainly seems to summarise his approach to reviewing the London premiere of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Motherf**ker With The Hat, which one can safely say is light years more profane than the Rodgers and Hart musical.

“A desperately boring play,” “an absolute stinker of a play,” “untrammelled by such boring bourgeois virtues as self-restraint or good manners,” “turgid tripe,” and “a pile of steaming offal,” are among the phrases Hart deploys about Guirgis’s Hat. While I happen to not agree with him (and admittedly I saw the Broadway production, not the one on at the National Theatre), he is entitled to these opinions. It may not be particularly nuanced criticism, but it’s his reaction.

There are other British critics with opposing views (The Guardian and The Independent), and some who agree (Daily Mail), so there’s no consensus among his colleagues. But within his flaying of the play, Hart reveals classist, racist and nationalist sentiments that, however honestly he may be expressing them, prove why he is unable to assess the play on its own terms, empathising with its flawed characters, as any good critic should endeavour to do.

“Like the white working class in this country, the PRs in America have picked up a lot of black patois.”

Take this example: “Like the white working class in this country, the PRs in America have picked up a lot of black patois.” Even allowing for differences in language between England and the US, referring to residents of Puerto Rico and “the PRs” is patently offensive, and also hopelessly out of date, all at once. The statement also suggests that Puerto Ricans are in some way foreign, when the island itself has been part of America for more than a century; it’s perhaps akin to saying “the Welsh in Great Britain” as if they’re alien.

When he parses “black patois” as the difference between saying “ax instead of ask,” Hart presents himself as Henry Higgins of American pronunciations, which I strongly suspect he picked up from watching American television and film, without any real understanding of racial culture or linguistics here – and he generalises condescendingly about a huge swath of the British populace for good measure.

Hart also refers to the “very brief entertainment to be had in trying to work out” the ethnic background of the character Veronica, first musing that she might be “mixed race African American” but acknowledging her as Puerto Rican “when her boyfriend calls her his ‘little taino mamacita’.” I don’t know why he was fixated on this issue, presumably based on a parsing of the skin colour of the actress in the role, especially since the play provided him with the answer (though the same problem has afflicted US critics encountering Puerto Rican characters as well).

Maria Jan Carreon and Gideon Bautista in Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them at Company One Theatre in Boston Massachusetts, USA.

Maria Jan Carreon and Gideon Bautista in Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them at Company One Theatre in Boston Massachusetts, USA.

Would that he were more focused on the character and story. He briefly describes the plot as being about “one Veronica, who lives in a scuzzy apartment off Times Square, snorts coke and sleeps around. Oh, and she shouts a lot.” In point of fact, the play is an ensemble piece, and if any one character dominates, it’s Jackie, the ex-con struggling to fight his addictions and set his life straight.

After going off on a tear about the play’s profanity, Hart makes a comment about the play’s dialogue, saying, “A lot of it is ass-centred, in that distinctive American way.” As an American, I have to say that I’m unfamiliar with our bum-centric obsession, outside of certain pop and rap songs, even if Meghan Trainor is all about that bass. But hey, I’ve only lived here my whole life, and spent 13 of those years living and working in New York, a melting pot of culture and idiom. What do I know?

I don’t happen to read Hart with any regularity, but my colleague at The Stage, [Mates’ co-founder] Mark Shenton, has noted his tendency to antagonistic hyperbole in the past, having called Hart out for separate reviews of Cabaret and Bent which both seem puritanical and, in the latter case, homophobic. While I peruse a number of UK papers online, both via subscription and free access, even my limited exposure to Hart’s rhetoric suggests that The Sunday Times is an outlet whose paywall I shall happily leave unbreached.

I was actually going to shrug off the ugliness of the Hat review, but only about an hour after I read it, I came across some letters to the editor in The Boston Globe, responding to a review of A Rey Pamatmat’s Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them at [that city’s] Company One Theatre. While I don’t think the critic in this case, Jeffrey Gantz, was trying to be inflammatory (as I’m fairly certain Hart was), he revealed his own biases in seemingly casual remarks. Noting that two of the characters are Filipino-American, he wrote:

“They make the occasional reference to their favourite Filipino dishes, but I wish more of their culture was on display, and it seems odd that they have no racial problems at school.”

Not every character with a specific racial or ethnic origin need demonstrate it for our consumption on stage; it may not be germane to the play or perhaps the characters created by Pamatmat are more steeped in American culture than Filipino…

 

 

Howard Sherman
Howard is an arts administrator, advocate and writer. In February 2015, he was named director of the new Arts Integrity Initiative at the New School for Drama, focused on creative and academic freedom in the arts. He also is Senior Strategy Director (following a year as Interim Director) of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts in New York, dedicated to creating opportunities for artists of colour and artists with disabilities in theatre, film and television. Sherman blogs independently at www.hesherman.com, and is also the New York correspondent for The Stage newspaper in London.

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Howard Sherman
Howard is an arts administrator, advocate and writer. In February 2015, he was named director of the new Arts Integrity Initiative at the New School for Drama, focused on creative and academic freedom in the arts. He also is Senior Strategy Director (following a year as Interim Director) of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts in New York, dedicated to creating opportunities for artists of colour and artists with disabilities in theatre, film and television. Sherman blogs independently at www.hesherman.com, and is also the New York correspondent for The Stage newspaper in London.

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