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The Problem with white critics critiquing work by Artists of Color

Equity in the Arts
Donja R. Love sits at a fold out table, in front of his laptop, and looks into the camera, unsmiling.
Donja R. Love (Photo by D.P. Jolly)

Toni Morrison once said about criticism of her work:

My general disappointment in some of the criticism that my work has received has nothing to do with approval. It has something to do with the vocabulary used in order to describe these things. I don’t like to find my books condemned as bad or praised as good, when that condemnation or that praise is based on criteria from other paradigms. I would much prefer that they were dismissed on or embraced on the success of their accomplishment within the culture out of which I write.

Ms. Morrison preached a word with that.

Writing about Black and Queer people, for Black and Queer people is at the core of my artistry. Scribing, narrating, celebrating, and unpacking our stories is what brings me joy. I believe it to be my purpose that I do not take lightly. So when Black folx and Queer folx – and those on the intersection of both – enter into a space where my work is being held, I get nervous and excited, simultaneously. That’s because I keep thinking to myself, will they see themselves reflected? Will they like it? Will I make them proud?

And just to be clear, they are the only communities that elicit those questions from me about my work.

I am fully aware that theater is an experience for all; and that being produced by certain theaters means there’s a built-in demographic/subscriber base (read: older white people) that make up a large portion of theater audiences. It is what it is. I try to change that, and work on having the bodies of the lived experience I write about be in the audience to reflect those that are on stage.

What’s harder, virtually impossible, to change are the critics that come to see the work. All I can do is pay them absolute dust, which a lot deserve – particularly the ones from super elitist publications, who mostly (read: most times, only) have white critics. These publications send white critics to bear witness to and 'critique' artists' work – in this case, work by artists of color. And sometimes, a lot of times, there is such a disconnect and lack of nuanced analysis that you wonder, did that critic even see past their elitism to receive the work?

That thought not only runs through my mind, but through the minds of many artists of color, spanning multiple disciplines. The thought of, why are these older, entitled, and disconnected white critics coming to ‘critique’ our work? Why is there not a diverse group of critics, employed by these pretentious publications? Maybe I just answered my own question.

Though I’ve experienced my share of careless reviews, most recently with my play, Sugar in Our Wounds, I think of works by some brilliant theater artists of color that have been washed over. When the Bill T. Jones-helmed production of Fela! was compared to a minstrel show; or the characters in Dominique Morisseau’s Paradise Blue were called "incoherent afterthoughts"; or Hammaad Chaudry’s An Ordinary Muslim was said to be "filled with freshman problems"; or when a Chicago critic wrote a review of Steppenwolf’s production of Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over that was so racist, American Theatre magazine invited Nwandu to write a response to that critic's negligence.

This negligence is a reoccurring issue. It’s so ceaseless and ubiquitous that the racist undertones from these 'critiques' are now second nature. Critics comparing artists of marginalized identities to other artists that exist within the same marginalized identity seems like the standard. Oh, this Black writer is just like this other Black writer. That Muslim writer is telling a similar story as that other Muslim writer, because they’re both Muslim. Those two writers are Queer so surely their plays are the same.

In my most recent review, I lost count of the number of Black playwrights I was compared to. And because I am Black, my play was reduced to a melodramatic race play. Because every Black playwright is intentionally writing about race, always – right? Do white artists get that – the assumption of what they’re writing about, the comparisons? Was Tracy Letts or Sarah Ruhl ever compared, so frequently, to other white artists?

Yes, my work is Black AND Queer. With my most recent production, what I repeatedly heard from countless Queer folx was how the love story between the two men was affirming and sang the loudest. The misguided critic who reviewed my work missed that. She actually went as far as to call the naming of my trilogy, The Love* Plays, "gentle self-aggrandizement". Forgetting the fact the trilogy is not based on me or my name, but Love… Queer* Love. That part of the "critique" was so infuriating because in February, the Times released a piece about the abundance of (white) Queer plays – totally erasing stellar artists writing Queer narratives; artists like Keelay Gipson, C.A. Johnson, Daniel Alexander Jones, Christina Quintana, Andrew Rincón, and so many others.

This lack of inclusion and problematic comparisons are exactly the issue with white critics critiquing work by artists of color and other marginalized folx. Their 'critiques' miss the mark, and they’re just as shallow as they are. Their 'critiques' make it seem as if our stories don’t matter, when in fact they do. The audacity of these critics is ridiculous and reeks not only of privilege, but teeters on racism.

Whenever an artist has to write a response to a critic’s review, much like this piece or Nwandu’s piece in American Theatre, because of its racist undertones, there is a problem. And that problem, clear as day, is the theater, like most aspects of this country, is nauseatingly white.

There are not enough people of color existing, or given space, in the theater. Not just as playwrights, actors, and directors, but as light, set, sound, and costume designers. We need to have more stage managers and stage crews of color – and of varied lived experiences.

We need more producers of color. There’s only a handful of Black Broadway producers – some of which still have a hard time producing work and advocating for artists of color, even if the artist is experienced, i.e. producer Alia Jones-Harvey having to write a three-page persuasive letter to Tennessee Williams’ estate on why Debbie Allen was qualified to direct the 2008 Broadway revival of his play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  

We need more literary managers and agents, as well as casting directors, of color, and artistic directors. A 2015 study revealed that 73 percent of artistic directors and 62 percent of executive directors are white men.

And of course, as this article’s title lets you know, more critics of colors. They need to be given the opportunity to critique the work that’s being produced. This would provide a necessary nuance and inclusion to the culture of theater. Hire more critics, and theater folx, who aren’t white. They are out there; we are out there. We exist. These critics are ready, and dear God, we are so ready for them.

But in the meantime, I must applaud the artists who are brave enough to create art, in spite of critics who aren’t even qualified to think of said artist’s lived experience, let alone critique it.

And for those critics, be clear, this article is a calling out. It is meant to be a very blunt, and unfortunately repetitive, message to hold publications and their critics accountable for their reductive and elitist 'critiques' that lack depth and understanding of communities that are not their own. The beauty and purpose of those artists' work shines beyond those critics' dismissal of lived experiences.

This article is also me unapologetically saying, 'Artists of Color and from marginalized identities, I see you. Keep creating and keep shining. We need you. We need your art. It will land on exactly who it’s intended to land on. Believe that!'