What language does critique speak?

Hedy Weiss, Antoinette Nwandu, and taking ownership

5 minute read
L to R: Jon Michael Hill's Moses and Ryan Hallahan's Mister in Antoinette Nwandu’s 'Pass Over,' at Steppenwolf Theatre. (Photo by Michael Brosilow.)
L to R: Jon Michael Hill's Moses and Ryan Hallahan's Mister in Antoinette Nwandu’s 'Pass Over,' at Steppenwolf Theatre. (Photo by Michael Brosilow.)

My first inkling that theater critic Hedy Weiss existed came when I read Cameron Kelsall's Broad Street Review essay about the controversy sparked by Weiss's Chicago Sun-Times review of Antoinette Nwandu's Pass Over. My admittedly limited knowledge of her critical work leads me to believe she is at worst a racist, or at best has a narrow worldview. Of course, anyone who criticizes anything — like my mom, for example, who doesn't like Thai food — states an opinion based on personal taste. Is it ever okay to debate subjective conclusions rather than just agreeing to disagree?

Cross-cultural competence
I've been thinking about this a lot because of a review of my latest novel, Letting Go. The book blogger in question, a middle-aged white man from the U.K., was outside my usual target audience, but I decided to cast a wide net because of some surprisingly positive reactions from similar long shots. I wasn't shocked that my book didn't turn out to be his cup of tea (pun intended). However, I was taken aback by his critique that I hadn't included enough about the history and cultural background of my protagonists, who are (like me) Canadians of West Indian descent. My initial reaction was, “Maybe he's right.”

About a moment later, I thought, “Why should I have to include a history of Jamaica in a contemporary story whose focus is something universal (personal growth)? Would he have required a history of England or the United States if the protagonists were WASPs?” (For a brilliant article on WASPs as default humans, click here.)

Since I didn't want to assume the answer, I asked him. He responded that he understood my perspective on this. He also mentioned that he's known only a handful of black people and lost contact with all of them. He has always lived in relatively remote locations; the only person of color where he currently resides is an Asian man, a nodding acquaintance.

Who are you?

The thing is, I know the people I'm portraying in my novel very well. I asked him if we had the right to exist in fiction, speaking standard English and living a middle-class life in the suburbs, profoundly affected by race but not plagued by the typical struggles black people face in literature: inner-city poverty, gang warfare, slavery, or the fallout of the civil rights movement. He didn't answer.

My skin color is always with me, whether I want to think about it or not. This doesn't prevent me from dealing with a lot of the same issues confronted by other people raised in the middle class. Another white reviewer noted that the issue of race is an undercurrent in my book but that, in the end, race didn't matter enough to prevent her from identifying with the characters — which is cool, because while we're all different, we're all human. I understand why my British reviewer might have hoped for — and perhaps even expected — something foreign and exotic. That said, who is he to determine when characters who reflect my experience are authentic enough? They may not be typical, but so what?

Playwright Antoinette Nwandu. (Photo via Twitter.)
Playwright Antoinette Nwandu. (Photo via Twitter.)

Similarly, who is Hedy Weiss to call a black playwright's inclusion of a brutal white police officer a “wrongheaded . . . indict[ment of] all white cops?” Isn't it finally time to let marginalized people openly tell our truth without being dismissed or corrected, especially when statistics — never mind personal experiences — back us up? The racist white cop isn't a new idea, but then again neither are lots of “stock” characters: Russian spy, precocious child, misogynist spouse. I don't know if Weiss has crusaded against any of these, but even if she has, if they exist in reality they have the right to exist in fiction. More important, Weiss's Breitbart-like irrelevant statements — such as her assertion that Nwandu should have highlighted black-on-black crime rather than police brutality — deserve pushback.

The N-word is "nope"

Which brings me to the question of whether or not actors should perform for Weiss, producers should give her free tickets, or the Chicago Sun-Times should publish her column. My answer is, all writers should be free to write as they wish. That said, the uproar doesn't occur in a vacuum; it's yet another indication of years of disregard and disrespect for those of us who aren't in the “default” group. In other words, Weiss is just part of the problem, but the problem is so huge that the only recourse available, other than continuing to grin and bear its weight, is to refuse to carry it and hand it back to its owner.

Protest may seem childish and futile to some, but it may also be the only way for others to maintain a sense of dignity. Even better, if enough people join in, perhaps the group effort can create change. In her response to Weiss's review, Nwandu mentions a mea culpa from critic Katie Walsh, whose original review of Pass Over had the inflammatory headline “The N-word is Nwandu.” While Weiss may never reconsider her opinions, the backlash against her might lead the Sun-Times to go in a different direction when her time there comes to an end. And even if Weiss were immortal, the more people question her conclusions, the less readers will take them as gospel. I don't know if the man who reviewed my novel changed any of his assumptions, but his willingness to engage with me suggests he might have examined his cloistered existence for a moment or two. Baby steps.

The rise of online forums for public debate has made the phrase “everyone's a critic” more accurate than ever. I'm a firm believer that every critique should be examined for grains of truth, rather than immediately rejected when the opinion hits a nerve, and that every dissent should be registered respectfully. I'm also a firm believer that giving critics a taste of their own medicine can be healing.

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