We stand by our critic and a vital Chicago theater scene

SHARE We stand by our critic and a vital Chicago theater scene

Jon Michael Hill plays Moses and Ryan Hallahan plays Mister in Antoinette Nwandu’s “Pass Over,” at Steppenwolf Theatre. | Michael Brosilow

Let’s begin by making one point clear: We support our theater critic, Hedy Weiss. She will continue to be a valued critic for the Sun-Times. And we are more than happy to pay for our own tickets to review theater productions.

Where, you might ask, is this coming from?


We understand that you might be perplexed if you have not read the Chicago Tribune lately, which has been all over this story, or kept up with the controversy on social media.

To catch you up, Hedy wrote a review on June 13 of a new Steppenwolf Theatre play, “Pass Over,’’ that has caused quite a stir in Chicago’s theater community. She described the play, a provocative reworking of “Waiting for Godot’’ by Antoinette Nwandu, as “brilliantly acted’’ and “unquestionably inspired.”

But she also wrote this, offending more than a few members of Chicago’s theater community:

“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.’’

That paragraph outraged many local theater people. They read it not as a well-intended critic’s failure to understand the facts of life about crime and policing in minority communities, which might allow room for honest debate, but as a particular white critic’s descent into bigotry. This was not the first time, they also complained, Hedy had made such objectionable comments.

Sun-Times theater critic Hedy Weiss. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times file photo

Sun-Times theater critic Hedy Weiss. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times file photo

The outcry led to a petition urging theaters in Chicago to stop inviting Hedy to review their shows, or to end the practice of providing a ticket to Hedy to review a show.

Steppenwolf, among the most influential theater groups in town, quickly joined in and denounced Hedy in a sharply worded statement to the Tribune: “We denounce the viewpoints expressed in some of these reviews as they fail to acknowledge the very systemic racism that ‘Pass Over’ addresses directly. Particularly egregious are the comments from Sun-Times critic Hedy Weiss, whose critical contribution has, once again, revealed a deep-seated bigotry and a painful lack of understanding of this country’s historic racism. Her contribution is actively working against the kind of theater we are striving to be.”

It was this surprising statement that prompted the Sun-Times to invite Steppenwolf Artistic Director Anna Shapiro and Executive Director David Schmitz to a meeting a few days ago to discuss their views on this matter and the larger issue of arts coverage in Chicago. It was a productive meeting with lots of good ideas thrown on the table.

What’s clear is that more and more terrific work by young playwrights of color is being showcased in Chicago theaters. This is an excellent development for a vibrant industry that seeks to remain relevant with new and more diverse audiences. Equally clear is that news organizations, including the Sun-Times, must do a better job of finding journalists of color to cover this work and all the arts. We are working to do so. We applaud theaters that are giving a new generation of artists their voice.

To dismiss Hedy Weiss as a critic who “doesn’t get it,’’ however, is to fail to be aware of or appreciate her full body of work as a Sun-Times critic for more than 30 years. Throughout her career, Hedy has been a champion of shows that deal with thorny issues of race, and she has made a point of calling the theater-going public’s attention to emerging artists of color.

This does not mean Hedy has withheld her criticism. She plays no favorites when reviewing a play, as is right. As for the play in question, “Pass Over” was intended to be provocative. Hedy wasn’t the only reviewer to address the racially sensitive issues the play explored.

This controversy has sparked many conversations. We have heard from upset people who defend Hedy and upset people who don’t. And we have heard from many Chicagoans, including many members of the theater community, who are appalled by what they see as a mob-like effort to silence a critic.

Could Hedy have been more nuanced in her comments? Should her review of “Pass Over” been edited better? Was it tone-deaf? We are all free to complain, defend and debate. But Hedy Weiss is a theater critic of integrity who writes from a place of honest good faith. Nothing she wrote comes close to what Steppenwolf assessed as “deep-seated bigotry.”

What troubles so many of us in journalism, who live and die by the First Amendment’s right to free speech, is to see so many people in the theater community, who also live and die by that right, falling in line to try to keep a critic from doing her job.

To try to silence a theater critic who is passionate about her work is not healthy for journalism or the theater.

We understand, at the Sun-Times, that we have room to grow when it comes to covering the diverse communities we serve, including in the arts. Our promise every day is to continue to do better. We do that, always, in the best of faith.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com

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