Chicago’s critical condition: On the Sun-Times’ Hedy Weiss

Critiquing a critic

On a recent trip to Chicago, I did what I often do when I’m in town: I headed over to Steppenwolf Theatre Company and bought a ticket for its current production. The play I saw was Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over. Steppenwolf describes Pass Over as “a provocative riff on Waiting for Godot . . . a rare piece of politically charged theater from a bold new voice.” Beckett’s tragicomic tramps have been replaced by Moses and Kitch (Jon Michael Hill and Julian Parker, respectively), two young black men trapped in cycles of poverty, racism, and police brutality.

Hedy Weiss at a 2015 meeting of the American Theatre Critics Association, shortly after her previous Steppenwolf controversy. (Photo by Charles Giuliano via berkshirefinearts.com)

Intentionally unsettling

Pass Over is intentionally unsettling. Nwandu, an overtly political playwright, works in the tradition of Amiri Baraka, Adrienne Kennedy, María Irene Fornés, and early Edward Albee. She is unafraid of making her audience uncomfortable, a fact that Dayna Taymor’s compact, often breathless 80-minute production highlights. The play is underscored by familiar music from the American songbook: peppy show tunes such as “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” and “Look to the Rainbow” that suggest an idyllic world far from Moses and Kitch’s desolate street corner. A white dandy (played by Ryan Hallahan) appears, Pozzo-like, to offer platitudes (and copious amounts of delicious-looking picnic food) to the starving men. Then a police officer (also Hallahan) brutalizes Moses and Kitch in an intentionally sadistic manner that recalls Philando Castile, Eric Garner, and the countless other documented fatal encounters between law enforcement agents and people of color.

Theater rarely leaves me shaken—but Pass Over left me feeling the need to examine my own relationship to the power structures that oppress so many citizens. In this respect, I was not alone: Chris Jones, chief theater critic of the Chicago Tribune, wrote that while some audience members “might well take issue with whether such a ruthless depiction of the police, especially, is helpful now. . . . Nwandu is under no obligation to provide succor. On the contrary, she clearly wants to confront the audience with its own complicity in all that it sees.”

Hedy Weiss, longtime chief theater critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, called Pass Over “brilliantly acted” and “unquestionably inspired.” Yet she took issue with the play’s depiction of police brutality and institutional racism: “To be sure, no one can argue with the fact that this city (and many others throughout the country) has a problem with the use of deadly police force against African Americans. But, for all the many and varied causes we know so well, much of the lion’s share of the violence is perpetrated within the community itself. Nwandu’s simplistic, wholly generic characterization of a racist white cop (clearly meant to indict all white cops) is wrong-headed and self-defeating.”

"Problematic" views

The fallout over Weiss’s review was swift and forceful. A petition seeking to disinvite Weiss from Chicago theatrical productions quickly received more than 3,500 signatures. A Medium essay titled “Dear Goodman Theatre: I Will Not Perform for Hedy Weiss,” by Chicago actor Bear Bellinger, laid out his objection to being reviewed by her: “The only economy an actor has in this business is their body. I get to choose where and when I perform and for whom. I will not participate in an arrangement that continues the degradation of PoC [persons of color] on a platform as large as the Sun-Times.” Steppenwolf itself issued a statement, stating that “Weiss . . . revealed a deep-seated bigotry and a painful lack of understanding of this country’s historic racism.”

Ryan Hallahan and Julian Parker in Steppenwolf's production of 'Pass Over.' (Photo by Michael Brosilow)
Ryan Hallahan and Julian Parker in Steppenwolf's production of 'Pass Over.' (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

This is not Weiss’s first brush with controversy. In prior reviews, she has called Tony Kushner a “self-loathing Jew,” praised the authenticity of a production of In the Heights cast with white actors, and advocated for the racial profiling of Muslim Americans. Those who follow Weiss’s career likely view her Pass Over review as simply the latest problematic pronouncement from an out-of-touch critic who happens to hold one of the few remaining platforms in daily-newspaper criticism.

Weiss has defenders—including the editorial board of the Tribunewho suggest that the debate over Weiss’s reviews contains “a hint of campus-style intellectual coddling . . . like some students and professors, who want to exist in a ‘safe space’ protected from disagreeable ideas.” The suggestion here falls along the lines of conservative talking points that cast anyone who calls out racism, sexism, ableism, or homophobia—or is smart enough to understand that the right to free speech is not the right to an unfettered platform—as a “special snowflake” who must be sheltered from "triggering" topics.

Acknowledging the issues

As a critic, I am usually inclined to side with critics. I worry about the repercussions of blackballing or firing someone over an unpopular opinion. I also believe in the right to get things wrong. Recently, I published an article on Phindie meant to highlight the thriving artistic scene in Philadelphia. Several commenters pointed out that the majority of artists included in my article were white. I took those communiqués to heart and realized that, intentionally or not, I was approaching theater from a cloistered point of view that, in the long run, would be detrimental to both the community and me. I thanked those who wrote and publicly acknowledged my failings in an addendum to the original article.

This is something Weiss has never done. Not only does she continue to write from a place of deeply ingrained bias—her review of Pass Over puts forth largely debunked claims of “black-on-black crime” while obfuscating the very real problem of institutional racism—but whenever she is called out on these biases, she doubles down. She seems entirely uninterested in participating in the conversations surrounding her work, and appears to have learned nothing from those who have taken great pains to enumerate the many problematic statements she has made over the years. Maya Angelou once said that when people show you who they are, you should believe them. There is no reason to assume the trail of racist, sexist, ableist, sizeist, and homophobic thought that is Weiss’s 30-plus-year career with the Sun-Times is going anywhere.

For these and many other reasons, Hedy Weiss does not deserve the privileged position she occupies. We are in a time of critical crisis, with jobs for arts writers dwindling by the day and even fewer positions held by people of color. The continued employment of such a backward thinker only feeds the narrative that the critical profession is obsolete and out of touch.

Our readers respond

Dan Rottenberg

of Philadelphia, PA on June 23, 2017

I'm not sure which is worse: (1) A narrow-minded theater critic like Hedy Weiss, who retains her prestigious post while dozens of more enlightened theater critics are starving; (2) theater critics and theatergoers who believe the decision to hire or fire Hedy Weiss should be determined by them instead of the people who pay Hedy Weiss's salary; or (3) an actor who refuses to perform for unsympathetic critics.

If only Mao Tse-Tung were still here, Hedy Weiss could be sent to a re-education camp to correct her wrongful thinking, and we'd all be happy. Ah, but what's the good of crying over spilled milk?

Author's Response

Dan, I guess I fundamentally disagree with your premise. If I were to answer your rhetorical question earnestly, I would have to say: The racist with the 150,000-reader platform is definitely worse. But I will address your comments with a little more nuance than that.

I don’t believe we write in silos— correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that the entire reason that BSR exists? When a fellow writer publishes a review (or several) that I deeply disagree with, I feel compelled to write about it… as you yourself have done on more than a few occasions. Also, although the people who sign Hedy Weiss’s checks are ultimately the only ones with the discretion and power to let her go, I don’t believe that articulating the reasons why I believe she shouldn’t hold the job is merely an intellectual exercise. As we critics often say, we write for the public. I am a member of Hedy Weiss’s public, and I have the right to voice my displeasure with the many ill-informed opinions she has published during her career. I believe I have a right to say that she doesn’t deserve her platform, and to state my reasons why.

I am one voice in this conversation, and ultimately the decision to fire Weiss is not mine to make, but I do not regret using my platform to say what I think is right.

John Harrold

of Palatine, IL on June 26, 2017

I have not read many of Hedy Weiss's reviews, because I rarely read the Sun-Times any more. She is getting a lot of publicity due to this issue. I used to read Richard Roeper's columns on a regular basis, because they were so lacking in integrity: One day he would take one point of view and then on another he would take a contradictory viewpoint. It was hard to believe that more people didn't call him out for it.

Then, for some reason, the late Roger Ebert decided he didn't want to share his television movie review program with another film critic, so he gave the job to Roeper. All of a sudden, Roeper was a film critic. Years before Ebert anointed him a film critic, Roeper wrote a column about the film, Primal Fear. He condemned it because he considered it anti-Catholic. He was outraged that the film was released close to Easter. Ebert gave it 3 1/2 stars our of 4. But Ebert reviewed it as a film. Roeper wrote a column about it as being anti-Catholic propaganda. I don't pay attention to anything that Roeper writes, and if he happens to be on the radio when I'm listening, I change the station. I think that he is a poster boy for mediocrity, but I don't advocate his being fired from any of his jobs.

Author's Response

Thanks for your comment, John. At the risk of sounding like an advocate for mediocrity, I would say I find Hedy Weiss’s long and documented history of racially and culturally insensitive comments far more egregious than Richard Roeper’s middlebrow sensibilities.

Michael Colucci

of Chicago, IL on June 27, 2017

I enjoyed your article. Just for the record, Hedy's exact quote re Kushner was: "Kushner, in the classic style of a self-loathing Jew… "

Author's Response

Thanks for reading, Michael. I have read Weiss’s review of Caroline, or Change from which the comment originates. Weiss wrote that “Kushner, in the classic style of a self-loathing Jew, has little but revulsion for his own roots.” I don’t know how that could be read as anything other than Weiss calling Kushner himself a “self-loathing Jew."

Richard da Silva

of Center City/ Philadelphia, PA on July 01, 2017

I found and read Hedy Weiss's review of Pass Over online and find the outrage over it to be unfair and hysterical. She praises a great deal about the play, doesn't like the ending, and what she says about crime in Chicago is true.

Kyle Smith, a conservative critic (not to be confused with the Philadelphia composer Kile Smith), posted a piece about the Affaire Weiss on the National Review website, "In Chicago, Thought-Police Brutality." I heartily recommend it for anyone interested in common sense rather than vendetta. It offers a defense of Weiss and also amplifies what she actually said about Tony Kushner, adding some context.

Hedy Weiss has been reviewing for 30 years. Have her critics actually gone through her whole output to offer a balanced appraisal? And Weiss will survive. The Chicago Sun-Times will pay for her theater tickets if necessary. The intolerance to free speech of some cultural leftists beggars belief, but they don't have a monopoly on it either.

Author's Response

Conservative commentators seem fixated on the fact that Weiss praised certain elements of the play, as if a few kind words about the acting or production excuse the dog-whistle racism at the heart of the review. Praise is rather hollow when it’s couched in (subtle or overt) racism, or when a critic uses her platform to neglect the actual issues raised by a play and instead pushes an agenda that, at the end of the day, has nothing to do with the play. I suggest you read playwright Antoinette Nwandu’s response to Weiss, published in American Theatre magazine, to gain some insight on that.

Several other writers have trotted out the word "vendetta" to cast those voicing opposition to Weiss’s reviews as disgruntled Chicago theater professionals  holding some kind of grudge for a prior bad review or a comment they perceived as insensitive. That’s not the case, of course. As you yourself point out, Weiss’s review of Pass Over was positive, and some of her most egregious statements come from reviews that were, by and large, favorable to the production. 

I found Smith’s column pure sophistry. But even if Weiss were attempting to cast Tony Kushner as a “self-loathing Jew” because he criticized the state of Israel and wrote the film Munich, that would merely be another example of Weiss using her platform to proselytize, rather than doing what a critic should do: evaluate the work at hand. Perhaps she should ask her editors at the Sun-Times to shift her from the theater beat to the op-ed page. 

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