Defending Chicago Sun-Times theater critic Hedy Weiss against the punishing hordes

One theater deploys racism, sexism and ageism to accuse her of racism, sexism, homophobia and more

The hard left has launched an intolerant, shut-your-mouth attack on long-time and respected Chicago Sun-Times theater critic Hedy Weiss.

Her sin? She stated an obvious truth about violence in Chicago in her June 13  review of “Pass Over” at Steppenwolf Theatre. Never mind that she praised it as “brilliantly acted” and “unquestionably inspired.” She dared to fault the play for distorting “the full story” about the murderous gang wars on the South and West sides:

Weiss set the stage by explaining:

[Antoinette] Nwandu has grabbed hold of the basic outline of “Waiting for Godot,” Samuel Beckett’s modernist classic about a pair of co-dependent homeless men who are forever trapped in poverty and tedium, but keep going in the hope that some form of deliverance is headed their way even if it eludes them time and time again. And she has reimagined the play by giving us two young, contemporary African-American men who hang out on a cement strip where a flickering lamppost offers about as much promise as the skeletal tree in “Godot,” and where their hope of “passing over” to a better life, and of escaping their dead-end existence repeatedly turns into a pipe dream.

So far, so good. Until the last 10 minutes of the play when the message becomes clear that all cops are murderers, a fault that even Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones, in  an appearance on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight, found with the play. Weiss was blunt in her criticism:

To be sure, 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. And the playwright’s final scenes — including a speech by the clueless white aristocrat who appears earlier in the story — and who could not be more condescending to Steppenwolf’s  largely white “liberal” audience — further rob the play of its potential impact.

I haven’t seen the play (and don’t plan to after the reverse blacklisting of Weiss by Chicago’s theater community), but I agree with Weiss’ broader point. Which will put me in line for a disemboweling right after Weiss’ auto-du-fe.

The reaction to Weiss is totally out of proportion to her supposed offense. One actor said he didn’t feel “safe” when Weiss is in the audience. Huh?

Another called Weiss’ “thinking” to be “emblematic” of jurors would would find a Milwaukee cop not guilty of murder in the fatal shooting of a black man because they don’t understand the consequences of “institutional racism.”

The Broken Nose Theatre righteously proclaimed that it already has a policy of  “not inviting any critic who utilizes their reviews to unapologetically espouse and propagate racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise bigoted and malicious views.”

A change.org petition asking Chicago theaters to “Stop Inviting Hedy Weiss To Your Productions” condemned her for her supposed history of similar offenses:

Hedy Weiss…has proven that she is not willing to work with us to create a positive environment. She has proven this repeatedly with the racism, homophobia, and body shaming found in her reviews. She has proven this by never, not once, apologizing to a party injured by her words

Playwright Kevin Coval slipped into stereotypical banalities:

What I’m not surprised about is old white people, critics for these dying papers, don’t want to celebrate stories about youth culture who have been systematically denied agency.

The vaunted Second City urged the Sun-Times to send someone else to review its performances, as if a rookie would be more amenable to Chicago’s theater aristocracy than a dedicated and honest journalist who been has been reviewing Chicago’s  theater scene for 30 years with integrity.

Enough.

, writing in the Reader correctly called the reaction a shocking  “Internet mob attack.” I’ll go further.

It is a disappointing, near tragic miscasting of the role of the theater by the artists themselves. The theater is supposed to be thought-provoking, compelling, shocking, outrageous and so forth. “Pass Over” obviously provoked Weiss when the play, in her mind, went off the tracks of reasonable discourse. Are others in the audience who had similar thoughts supposed to shut up too?

Regular theater goers, of course, are not critics whose voice is heard to thousands of readers. But that’s not a reason for a critic to suppress her opinion. Quite the contrary, regular theater goers depend on her integrity, actually they pay for it.

Jones put it well on Chicago Tonight as he set aside the argument that art criticism is somehow supposed to serve the “community” and create a “positive environment.”  “I write for my readers,” he said. He’s there “to speak truth to the community.” And most insightful: After all, theaters are a business that charge people money to get in.

And so I ask, should this business be free of examination and comment? Is it so sanctified that consumers of this business are not entitled to the honest opinion of people who are paid to give it?

Are actors, playwrights, producers and everyone else whose job it is to comment on manners and mores so sensitive that no one can have their own honest view of their work?

By the way, as a Marquette University Journalism School graduate in 1963, it was my understanding that critics and other journalists should not take free tickets, to review or just attend an event. The attempted muzzling of Weiss demonstrates the wisdom of that policy. If the Sun-Times has to pay for tickets to review a show, so much the better.

dennis@dennisbyrne.net

www.dennisbyrne.net

Comments

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  • I don't understand the point you are making. You agree that Chicago theaters should not be giving free tickets to Weiss. Are you saying that it is illegal or immoral for "Chicago's theater aristocracy" to object to a review she has written? Is only a newspaper critic entitled to give a negative review?

  • In reply to jnorto:

    They played the race card. It was despicable.

  • Punishing a critic seems to me to be another form of censorship.

  • In reply to Bob Schneider:

    How was she punished? By being criticized for her criticism?

  • Brilliant piece, theaters need to understand sometimes criticism is just that. Not everyone is going to love your work, deal with it.

  • Everyone is entitled to an opinion. Apparently that singular fact makes people uncomfortable, especially when that opinion states an inconvenient truth.

  • In reply to HHH Is My Hero:

    Yes, and this applies equally to both the critic and the critics of the critic.

  • It depends on whose ox is being gored.

  • Is it okay to criticize someone who says all cops are murderers? Have we come to a point where it is wrong to criticize someone for making such a stupid, stereotypical, bigoted statement? The point here is that Hedy Weiss is being shunned because she argued that all cops are not killers. Amazing. Do wired and jnorto care to defend the idea that all cops are killers. If not should they also be shunned?

  • In reply to Dennis Byrne:

    You quote Weiss as writing that she infers that the play is suggesting all white policemen are racists (not murderers). That is her interpretation. Her critical opinion. Aren't you assuming that her viewpoint is absolutely valid and correct?

    BTW, Dennis, have you forgotten what Voltaire said about free speech?

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    To the point that she is defending police from bigoted and sweeping generalizations, yes, I very much agree with her. We have come full circle from when liberals stoutly fought against stereotyping to now when the defend it.

  • There is a difference between objecting to what someone writes and singling them out for negative treatment because of what they write. Everyone has the right to take issue with a review by writing letters, editorials, etc., to counter the points made in that review. But they are singling her out for differential treatment from other critics because they don't like something she wrote. They should just stop issuing free tickets to all journalists then, not just the ones who offend them. We've gone from a society that debates and discusses different viewpoints to one that blacklists and censors controversial viewpoints, and that's what many people find disturbing..

  • In reply to Friendly Curmudgeon:

    We don't live in a "society that debates and discusses different viewpoints"? I don't think we have ever lived in a time when there were so many public forums for debate and expressions of opinion. I think we sometimes wish we could return to the good old days when editors could control these debates.

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