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In defense of Hedy Weiss

Just because you disagree with her criticism doesn’t make her a bigot.

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I saw the same Steppenwolf opening Sun-Times critic Hedy Weiss saw two weekends ago—Antoinette Nwandu's Pass Over, a lacerating, absurdist exploration of racism. The play was genuinely shocking.

And so was the Internet mob attack that blew up in response to Weiss's review of it.

As of Tuesday, more than 3,500 people had signed an online petition accusing Weiss of repeated "racism, homophobia, and body shaming," and asking all Chicago theaters to drop her from their lists of invited critics. (No examples are cited in the petition.) In other words, they want to take away her press pass.

On Wednesday, Steppenwolf issued a statement calling Weiss's review "particularly egregious," and charging that her "critical contribution has, once again, revealed a deep seated bigotry and a painful lack of understanding of this country's historic racism." The statement, which did not contain any examples of this "deep seated bigotry," was signed on behalf of the company by Steppenwolf's artistic director Anna D. Shapiro and executive director David Schmitz.

It was a startling move by a major Chicago theater against a critic who's logged more than 30 years—thousands of nights in storefronts and millions of words written on deadline—as a champion of the vaunted Chicago theater scene.

The petition, which went up on Change.org on June 13, was put together by a new group, the Chicago Theater Accountability Coalition (ChiTAC). According to its own press release, ChiTAC was founded by playwright Ike Holter and actors Kevin Matthew Reyes, Tony Santiago, Sydney Charles, and Sasha Smith, who came together only that night, "to brainstorm a solution to combat the accustomed, irresponsible and unresponsive nature of a specific Chicago critic." The press release cites "harm to the theater community" caused by "recent reviews [of Pass Over] from several critics," but the petition is aimed at only one: "Since we believe that it is the duty of everyone in our community to uphold our very high standard for conduct, we formally request that your company not invite Hedy Weiss to the run of any present or future productions." On Monday, a spokesperson for ChiTAC said 62 theaters have joined them so far and they "hope to release a statement" at the end of the week.

Since ChiTAC's "very high standard for conduct" is not spelled out (beyond the desire for a "safe environment"), we're on our own to suss out Weiss's current infractions from what she actually wrote. In her Pass Over review, Weiss applauded the playwright's concept—a riff on Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, with two young black men stranded under an urban street lamp—as "inspired." She found the acting "brilliant" and "sublime," and the dialogue "terrific." But, she wrote, "this play distorts the full story" by ignoring violence perpetrated "within the community itself," while presenting a "simplistic, wholly generic characterization of a racist white cop (clearly meant to indict all white cops)." And, she concluded, the last ten minutes of the play derail it—condescending to Steppenwolf's "largely white 'liberal' audience" while also clubbing it over the head.

Weiss declined to comment for this story, as did Sun-Times editor and publisher Jim Kirk, but this is certainly not her best review ever. It contains comments that, as some have noted, are, at best, "tone-deaf." She condenses systemic racism into the breezy "for all the many and varied causes we know so well," and suggests that people are relieved when police arrive at a crime scene, as if Bettie Jones wasn't mowed down when she opened the door of her home for an officer, or we'd never seen the Laquan McDonald video. But she's not pulling those comments out of thin air. Nwandu has written a pointedly provocative play. The two white characters in Pass Over (played by a single actor) are stereotypes—evil incarnate, and the only shooters the audience sees. And Weiss is doing what a critic is expected to do: reacting. Does she relate the story to the reality on the streets of Chicago (where, last weekend at least 50 people were shot and seven died)? Yes, and so does Steppenwolf, which is explaining Pass Over in its supplemental programming as "an absurd cycle of violence and inertia" that we "see playing out right here in Chicago year after year."

As far as I know, Weiss has never bothered with political correctness. If a chorus line breaks with tradition by incorporating a variety of body types, she notices—as does everyone in the audience. If a play for young audiences glorifies vandalism in the form of graffiti, she objects. I'd argue that's her greatest strength as a critic: she's taking on the subject matter of the work, as any critic worth his or her salt should, and she's not afraid to go out on a limb. You might not share her perspective, and that can make her a lightning rod, but it doesn't automatically make her a bigot.

Ironically, the bigotry that's evident in all this has been piling on in Facebook discussions and other Internet comments (where the worst of her attackers have taken her past words out of context and maliciously distorted their meaning). The Tribune's Chris Jones, the critic at the Sun-Times's rival paper and one of the first people speaking up on her behalf, has written that he has "been truly appalled by the ageism, cruelty, personal vitriol and nasty threats" online.

That eager herd brutality brings to mind something very nasty and much older than the Internet. Something like a witch hunt. As it happens, Steppenwolf's next season of theater for young adults will open with Arthur Miller's The Crucible, followed by a world premiere of Philip Dawkins's The Burn, which the company is describing as "a modern telling of the way social media blurs the lines of truth and fiction and paves the way for new kinds of witch hunts."  v

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