“The Great White Way” is too white and that needs to change
In September, the Broadway lights will shine again, and for the first time in a long time, Ben Brantley won’t be there to write a review. Instead, The New York Times critic will be replaced with Jesse Green, another white theater critic.
This past April, theater workers banded together for the first-ever March on Broadway. Along with demanding for the end of workplace harassment, they called for greater inclusivity and representation on stage. I’d like to add another demand to that list: greater representation off stage, particularly how theater is covered.
You see, for too long, major outlets have relied on a white voice to dictate, share and explain the theater world, a world that is often portrayed as a place of possibility, where anything can happen. If that is the case, why is there only one type of person qualified to chronicle it?
If journalism is meant to represent the community at large, why are news organizations using a small group of people to do that?
In every instance, there’s a rift between what is represented on stage and what is actually discussed outside of that. The theater is the place for stories to be told through dramatization, where nuanced conversations and difficult subjects can be discussed.
But conversations outside of the typical theatergoer are rarely discussed or even brought up due in part because of theater coverage.
In 2017, Once On This Island opened on Broadway. Once On This Island is a typical high school production, only I didn’t know that before its revival on Broadway. I grew up in Brooklyn, surrounded by Caribbean immigrants and schools that couldn’t afford robust arts programs. So imagine my surprise when I learned that this revival was not only set in Haiti but had direct references to the Haitian revolution and the 2010 earthquake?
Unfortunately, those elements didn’t make it in the reviews. Instead, most of the reviews were written by white people who focused on the technical aspects of the show. While that isn’t a bad thing, it doesn’t give readers and potential audience members the full context of the show, how colorism and class issues are not merely tools to provide the performance with more complexity but are used to ground the story within Haiti’s history. Would non-Caribbean critics think to critique the fact that the show mentions Haiti in almost every sense but fails to call the country out by name?
Think about how many people missed out on experiencing this heavily Caribbean-influenced show because journalists targeted their reviews on their news outlet’s consumer citizen instead of a broader community.
This isn’t only a Once On This Island problem. It’s a general art journalism problem. The coverage doesn’t reflect the people. It’s not comprehensive or proportional. It’s bedridden in the white gaze and thought.
But there have been attempts at fixing this.
Jose Solís founded Token Theater Friends in 2018 along with Diep Tran with the goal of diversifying the voices that covered theater. These arts journalists believe that critics and audiences of color needed a place to see themselves in the theater industry. And they’re managing to do this without using typical ad revenue. Instead, Theater Token Friends is primarily funded through Patreon.
Jose Solís took things a step further and founded BIPOC Critics Lab in partnership with The Kennedy Center. He spent ten weeks mentoring and training BIPOC theater critics, screening zoom theater productions and connecting them with outlets to publish their work.
Clearly, BIPOC critics exist and are ready to take up the mantle.
But Solís and Tran can’t do the work alone. Major outlets need to put in the work as well. Part of putting in the work is featuring other arts writers with diverse backgrounds to share their perspectives.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that theater journalism is filled with gatekeepers and people who were grandfathered into the industry. In an interview with American Theatre, Green stated that he was offered the position, even after asking, “don’t you want someone who brings more diversity to the table?” In response, Dean Baquet, the Times’s executive editor, said, “it’s wrong to try to solve all of an institution’s diversity problems in one hire.” What Baquet fails to realize is that a hire will be a step in the right direction. Equitable hiring practices are another step in the continual effort to making Broadway (and its coverage) a place for everyone.
With major news outlets shutting out BIPOC critics due to the lack of opportunity or systemic wide oppression, I imagine that more journalists will publish their own content outside of “established news organizations” and eventually create their own. We’re already seeing this with Token Theater Friends. But the call for greater diversity has been made. It’s time for news outlets to listen and act.