By Kyle Smith
Friday, June 30, 2017
In Chicago, where there were more homicides last year than in Los Angeles and New York City combined, expressing any support whatsoever for the police is now considered an outrage. Should you point out that, say, a play seems to suggest cops are evil crackers, you may find yourself denounced as a racist and targeted for abuse and ostracization.
A theater writer has just found that out. In what the website American Theatre dubbed “the review that shook Chicago,” adding in a subhead that “Local theatre artists rise in revolt,” veteran theater critic Hedy Weiss of the Chicago Sun-Times criticized a new play called Pass Over, which I haven’t seen but is being described as a kind of update of Waiting for Godot filtered through the sensibility of Black Lives Matter. The play, by Antoinette Nwandu, was mounted by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, perhaps the most celebrated outfit of its kind outside of New York City. Weiss found its racial politics to be a bit reductionist, and offered these thoughts in her review:
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. Just look at news reports about recent shootings (on the lakefront, on the new River Walk, in Woodlawn) and you will see the look of relief when the police arrive on the scene.
Cue unbridled rage. Steppenwolf charged her with “deep-seated bigotry.” An actor named Bear Bellinger announced that he would not perform if Weiss showed up at a workshop production he was appearing in. An ad-hoc coalition that might as well have dubbed itself the Blackball Hedy Movement (but is actually called the Chicago Theater Accountability Coalition, or CTAC) launched a petition via change.org to organize the theater world of Chicago against Weiss by denying her invitations to its plays. Several theater organizations have publicly agreed to join the blackballing effort, and dozens have offered noncommittal statements of support. The group’s broadside against Weiss reads, “Over the last few years especially, we have joined together to make it clear that inappropriate language or behavior does not have a place within our community, and that prejudice of any kind will not stand.”
Wait a minute — inappropriate behavior? Inappropriate language? Weiss cannot reasonably be accused of either of these things. She isn’t disrupting plays. She isn’t using curse words and slurs in her reviews. She isn’t, as far as I know, belching loudly during shows nor unwrapping candies during quiet moments. CTAC should be honest with itself and admit that its charge against Weiss is that she is thinking inappropriate thoughts. It was less than two years ago that Steppenwolf mounted a stage adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984. Do these people not recognize their kinship with the thought police? Do they not see that “Shut up” is not an argument?
To join the Hedy Weiss Resistance seems self-defeating on the one hand and pointless on the other — she could, after all, simply buy tickets to the plays, and pass along the cost to her employers (the Sun-Times pledged such support in its editorial defending her). Moreover, if she actually were successfully kept away from plays in Chicago, those plays would lose the publicity fillip of being written about in a widely read newspaper.
And what part of Weiss’s review is indefensible? Is not most of the violence perpetrated against blacks in Chicago, and elsewhere, carried out by other blacks? Of course it is. I won’t bother to cite statistics because everyone knows this. Do not ordinary law-abiding black citizens respond with relief when mayhem is answered by the arrival of police? To say otherwise would be to charge black communities with valuing bloodshed more than order. As for whether the portrayal of the cop in the play is meant to indict all police officers, or whether that portrayal is simplistic and generic, I couldn’t say, not having seen the play. But expressing opinions on the depth and subtlety of a play is what all theater critics do.
Weiss, we are told gravely, has “done this before,” meaning she has said politically incorrect things. Thirteen years ago she called Tony Kushner a “self-loathing Jew” in a review of his play Caroline, or Change. Kushner once called the state of Israel “a moral, political catastrophe for the Jewish people” and wrote the movie Munich, which was a moral-equivalence piece evincing at least as much disgust with the Mossad for tracking down and assassinating the Palestinian terrorists who carried out the 1972 Olympics massacre as it did with the PLO murderers themselves. Nonsensically, Weiss also stands charged with “body-shaming” for praising the costumes in a production of Mamma Mia, saying they “make the most of the many ‘real women’ figures on stage,” referring euphemistically to plump performers, but contrasting them with backup dancers who had “perfect bodies.” An aggrieved cast member replied in a huff that all women’s bodies are perfect.
The theater world is a place where being “subversive” and “transgressive” are considered the highest of all virtues. But what’s going on in Chicago is a reminder is that greasepaint revolutionaries can barely handle even mild intellectual opposition. They picture themselves riding bravely into the battlefield of ideas. But if anyone shows up to fight for the other side, they cry meekly, “Excuse me, I don’t think you’re allowed here.”