Hedy Weiss has the right to criticize

If I had read Sun-Times critic Hedy Weiss’s review of Pass Over before hell broke loose in the theater community over it, I probably would not have pronounced it bigoted.

Weiss may have missed the mark in some of her unfavorable comments about the current Steppenwolf production, but critics miss the mark at times. Much of the review praised the play, the playwright, and the acting.

About the controversial parts of her review, I thought naive Weiss’s comment that “you will see a look of relief” when police arrive at a shooting scene. With the focus on shootings of African Americans by police, how can she think the community feels safer when the police arrive?

The “generic characterization” of evil whites, to use Weiss’s words, made me cringe when I saw the play, but I thought that the stereotype was the author’s way of portraying white privilege and gave it the benefit of the doubt. Weiss wrote that the characterization was “wrong-headed and self-defeating.”

I wouldn’t have done a double take over her comment about “the lion’s share of the violence is perpetrated within the [black] community itself.”

That the theater community has led a mob reaction against Weiss has been disturbing.

On Facebook, a Steppenwolf statement said that Weiss “revealed a deep-seated bigotry and a painful lack of understanding of this country’s historic racism.” A petition started by the new Chicago Theater Accountability Coalition to have Chicago theaters refuse Weiss complimentary reviewing tickets had 3,648 signatures from local actors and playwrights as of Monday afternoon. They charge that Weiss has a history of “racism, homophobia, and body shaming” in her 30-plus years of reviewing for the Sun-Times.

Critics review through the filter of their experience. Indeed, we all experience a work of art through the filter of individual experience. Those who call for more diversity in the reviewing community make a good point. Belonging to Weiss’s generation and race and also having a journalism background, I come down on the side of free speech and may be as insensitive as she allegedly is.

But I can’t understand how noncontroversial reactions were expected from such a provocative play.

Weiss’s review “was an opinion about a play that was designed to shock and provoke,” Tribune theater critic Chris Jones wrote about the furor. “You can’t do that and then say we’re trying to get rid of the person with that opinion.”

Supporting Weiss’s right to express contrary and even offensive opinions, Jones said, “In my experience, engagement with different points of view is always preferable to trying to shut them down or ban their free expression.”

The way I read that is, why not talk instead of denouncing?

In that spirit, I’m going to talk about something related to race that happened to me the very day I saw Pass Over, even though I fear being exposed as clueless.

I was shopping at my local Jewel. Two express checkout rows have a single waiting line between them. I was the only person waiting when an African American woman approached and asked whether I was in line. Yes, I answered, explaining that the single line was for both the left and the right rows. “I didn’t know that,” she said, and walked around and in front of me. I pointed out that I was next, and she said, “I’m not messin’ with you, don’t mess with me.” Then she added, “Entitlement.”

I felt shamed, the word “entitlement” accusing me of white privilege.

Maybe it was akin to a road rage incident, and I shouldn’t have said anything. Maybe it was too insignificant to deserve speaking up. But that she had asked me about the line added to my irritation. I would have said something to any person who cut in front of me. It was the woman who racialized the incident. I don’t generalize her behavior to all blacks. She’s an individual who behaved badly. So, what would there be to talk about?

One conversation starter might be that the incident helped me to understand how much it can sting to be seen not as an individual but as a person with a particular skin color. I wasn’t representing entitled white people but was a single person defending her place in line.

Another thing to talk about might be how the word “entitlement” made me cower, how afraid white people are of being thought racist. I hope I’m not racist, I try not to be. But can any of us really claim to have conquered all of the deep-seated prejudices of our conditioning?

Accusations of racism don’t further conversation, however.

Which brings me back to Weiss. I’m not saying that the Steppenwolf folks should have invited her to sit down and talk. Critics need to keep a distance. I’m not suggesting that those who disagreed with Weiss’s review should have remained silent. Reading about the fallout has made me consider things I hadn’t, which of course is good. I just wish that a discussion among theater administrators, actors, playwrights, and audiences could have taken place without making Hedy Weiss into an enemy.

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