As I was writing my latest essay for Oregon ArtsWatch, I found myself turning over a lot of questions about critical best practices. Both as a dramaturg and when I’m reviewing a piece, I find it important to approach a work in the spirit it was created. That is, to accept its premises and goals, to not evaluate it on the grounds of wishing it were something other than what it’s trying to be. But when does it become appropriate– or even important– to ask questions about what a show is trying to be?
Luckily for me, that question more or less exploded into the broader theatre world conversation between the time I submitted the piece and when it got published. This recent review of the musical Big River sparked a contentious conversation (and a snippy letter from the Encores! artistic director) about the role of a critic in discussing not only what a show is, but perhaps what it ought to be. I really admire Laura Collins-Hughes’s willingness to engage not only with the show’s aesthetic merits, but to ask questions about its treatment of gender and especially race. Seeing the backlash to Collins-Hughes’ work stiffened my own resolve on the topic. My piece isn’t really a review of Astoria, of course, and I would have framed the questions differently if it had been– but I still would have asked them.
There is, frankly, limited space on American stages– if one story is being told, another isn’t. If we really are committed to diversity, at some point, we do have to begin evaluating not just what plays are talking about, but what they’ve decided not to talk about.