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Cri­tiquing a critic

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

5 minute read
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)

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 Beckett’s tragicomic tramps have been replaced by Moses and Kitch (Jon Michael Hill and Julian Parker, respectively), two young black men trapped in cycles of poverty, racism, and police brutality.

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 Tribune, who 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.

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