On Tuesday a Change.org petition created by the Chicago Theater Accountability Coalition called on theaters to stop inviting longtime Chicago Sun-Times theater critic Hedy Weiss to productions because “she is not willing to work with us to create a positive environment.”
Weiss has been with the newspaper since 1984 covering theater and dance, reporting on national and international productions outside of Chicago as well. She also contributes theater reviews to PBS’s program WTTW Chicago Tonight.
The petition does not call for a ban on Weiss attending performances but rather asks that she is no longer given free press tickets due to accusations that she writes insensitive reviews:
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.
Hedy Weiss, theater critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, 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.
The petition went online the same day as Weiss’s review for Antoinette Nwandu’s play Pass Over at Steppenwolf Theatre, which is a reimagining of the play Waiting For Godot. In her review, Weiss takes issue with the way Nwandu treats her white characters:
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.
A statement from the coalition identified its co-creators as Ike Holter, Kevin Matthew Reyes, Tony Santiago, Sydney Charles and Sasha Smith, who came together on Tuesday night and decided to create the petition.
“The goal is not to ban anyone, but to simply have theaters not hand out free tickets to someone with a history of prejudice in their reviews,” writes playwright Holter in the statement. “If we can’t resist this, in our city, then we should stop pretending our safety pins work. This? This is theater. And it’s small, and it’s important, and we can fix it.”
“Writing into the Sun-Times and her editor didn’t work. Appealing to the theaters themselves over the past couple of years didn’t work,” writes Coalition member and actor Kevin Matthew-Reyes in an email to Jezebel. “So those of us largely without power in the traditional sense banded together to protect each other from harm’s way.”
Nwandu told Broadway World that she signed the petition because “HW did a hatchet job on my play and the theater community in Chicago deserves more.”
Weiss had not responded for Jezebel’s request for comment by press time, though she told Broadway World that she stood by what she wrote. The Entertainment Arts Editor and Managing Editor of The Chicago Sun-Times also have not yet responded to Jezebel’s request for comment.
In an official statement to Jezebel, Steppenwolf Theatre writes:
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.
Theater criticism in Chicago is startlingly white, with writers like Weiss, Chris Jones (Chicago Tribune), Tony Adler (Chicago Reader), and Kris Vire (Time Out Chicago) leading criticism in a city that is one of the most diverse in the country. But it’s an issue not at all specific to one city; in April it was announced that Jesse Green (formerly of Vulture) would be taking Charles Isherwood’s coveted spot as a theater critic for the New York Times. American Theater asked: why another white guy? And there had even been a petition, signed by several Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights, to replace Isherwood with a person of color. In an email to Broadway Journal in response to the petition, Bill Hirschman, chairman of the executive committee of the American Theatre Critics Association, said that he wasn’t aware of any women of color among its 241 members.
Chris Jones, after being asked to comment on the Hedy Weiss petition, wrote on Facebook that while he respects the Chicago theater community’s right to debate Weiss’s reviews, he also supports her right to express her opinion. “Whether you agree with her or not (and few artists or critics are perfect) Hedy is part of Chicago’s grand tradition of potent, formidable women critics,” he wrote Wednesday. “And the nastiest stuff online has been penned by men who use the rhetoric of demanding diversity.”
“Using Hedy’s womanhood to defend her against the recent criticism is offensive to women and to feminism,” wrote Kelly Wallace, managing editor of theater blog Stage and Candor. “That does not excuse the continued employment of someone who uses such racist, homophobic, and bigoted rhetoric.”
This is not the first time Weiss has been criticized for her reviews by readers and those in theater, which have included writing that the costumes of Mamma Mia “make the most of the many ‘real women’ figures on stage” and describing the costumes in Wicked as like “inmates of a concentration camp.”
In a 2013 review of the play Invasion!, a comedy about Arab identity and stereotypes, Weiss wrote “despite [playwright] Khemiri’s passion, those still thinking of the horrific terrorist attacks at the Boston Marathon might well be tempted to ask: What practical alternative to profiling would you suggest?” even though the marathon bombers were Russian-American. The piece was then edited to omit the sentence that some claimed advocated for racial profiling.
In a 2004 review of Tony Kushner’s play Caroline, or Change Weiss wrote “Unfortunately, Kushner, in the classic style of a self-loathing Jew, has little but revulsion for his own roots.” He responded in the paper, “That’s appalling, and so is the fact that Ms. Weiss’ editors were willing to publish her offensive words without demanding that she produce evidence for them.”
Actor Esteban Cruz tells Jezebel that at a panel in May 2011 during the Chicago Theater Capital of America Symposium Weiss said that she was tired of stories about minorities:
I remember she said that ‘there are just so many stories about gender, minorities and gays [on Chicago stages], so much so that it is sickening.’...I was on a separate panel about Latinx theater artists. I was in the audience for this panel and I stood up and asked her to please rephrase her statement because it sounded like she was saying that she only wanted to see plays about straight, white men. When given the chance to reconsider or alter her statement-she pushed back and assured myself and all those in attendance that she in fact, only prefers seeing plays about straight white men.
Tony Adams, artistic director for the Halcyon Theatre, was also at the panel:
I remember her saying “there are so many plays about race and gender that it’s sickening.” I was in the back of the room and saw the reactions of Chris Jones (Chicago Tribune) and Kerry Reid (Chicago Reader and Chicago Tribune) to it as well. She was sitting in-between them, it was a panel on criticism. At the end of the panel there was a Q&A and Esteban identified himself as a queer latino theatre artist and repeated what she said, asking for clarification. He said I don’t think that’s what you meant, so I’d like to give you another opportunity to respond. Instead, she doubled down on what she’d said.
I don’t recall her explicitly saying she only prefers seeing plays about straight men, she may have, but the only examples she mentioned were MacBeth, The Cherry Orchard etc, so it was pretty clear what she meant. She was saying how she doesn’t need to know more about the black experience to write about black work, since she wasn’t alive in Medieval Scotland or turn-of-the-last-century Russia and she understood MacBeth and Cherry Orchard just fine.
“When I first saw the petition it was a culmination of years of built up resentment towards this particular critic,” said Lucas Garcia, the Content Coordinator and Creator for Chicago’s Alliance of Latinx Theater Artists. “I think people have been feeling and thinking this about this theater critic in Chicago for a long time. This was sort of a last straw moment.”