Response To Review Promoting Racial Profiling

Thu. August 8, 2013 12:00 AM
by Danny Bernardo

Chicago Sun-Times chief theatre critic Hedy Weiss' review of Silk Road Rising 's current production of Invasion has caused quite a stir not only in the theatre community but in the Asian and South Asian communities as well. Jonas Hassen Khemiri's satire on Western fear of Arab male identity has elicited a full gamut of reactions since its official press opening this past weekend. It is Weiss' review, however, that stands out: not for its critique of the piece but it's reductive and ostensibly intolerant tone. The online version of the review (found here) has since been edited, presumably due to the negative reaction it was receiving. The most glaring omission is a section that still appears in the print version:

"But despite 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?"

One might point out to Ms. Weiss that the bombers that are in custody for the attacks on the Boston Marathon are not Arab, but in fact Caucasian. One might point out that the young South Asian men were held under suspicion for said bombings because of racial profiling, two innocent young men who became the victims of hate mongering during the time they were under suspicion. One might argue that it is preposterous to defend the discriminatory notion of racial profiling, especially in a theatre review. One might and many have. In the twenty-four hours since the review was posted online, readers took to social media and the comments section of the review to vent their outrage.

Anna Bahow, the director for Silk Road Rising's production of Invasion says that the play "explores issues of any group that has been marginalized or profiled whether it is by the media or well-meaning but uninformed colleagues." She adds: "It could be the Japanese interred in World War II; it could be Latinos or African-Americans at any point in our history. Our preconceived ideas are challenged and we are asked to look at things from different points of view."

"Khemiri subverts our expectations," she continues. "We in the audience may be racial-profiling characters in the plays as we watch and then Khemiri changes the rules and shows us the other side - a different reality something beyond the stereotype, taking us to very human personal moments.

"It's as though [Weiss] came into the show with a very obstinate opinion of Arabs in America," noted actor Kevin Matthew Reyes, who recently starred in my play Mahal at Bailiwick Chicago . "And then used her position as a widely read critic in the area to try and persuade the greater public that she's right, and all these artists and Arabs in general are misguided in trying to speak out against it."

Fawzia Mirza (actress and co-creator of the hit web series Kam Kardashian ) agrees, adding: "Hedy Weiss is sending a message to Muslim and South Asian actors like me, to Middle Eastern actors, to Black actors, to Latin actors, to actors of color in general, that no matter who you play on stage, she sees your race, your religion, first, your character last."

This is not the first time that Ms. Weiss has faced controversy for a review. In her 2004 review of the Broadway musical Caroline, or Change (with a book by Tony Kushner, who won the Pulitzer for Angels in America ), she wrote: "Unfortunately, Kushner, in the classic style of a self-loathing Jew, has little but revulsion for his own roots. You can hear it and feel it throughout... "

Mr. Kushner responded: " Caroline ...has received many reviews -- some great, some mixed, some negative. None has accused me of me being a Jewish anti-Semite... There's a reason for her lack of specificity: there are no such stereotypes in the play, and there is not a single line of text to corroborate her charge."

He continues: "A playwright can be flatly accused of hating his own people without a single word cited from the play in question. 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. It goes beyond the bounds of criticism, and indeed of ethical behavior, to make such a charge without accountability."

In her review of the 2005 tour of Wicked , she likened the attire of the Munchkins to those of "inmates of a concentration camp" and wrote: "The cinematic 'Oz' is, of course, little more than a footnote here, with the Scarecrow now revealed to be a lynched black man... "

Director Joe Mantello called the accusation preposterous and responded: "Once again, she provides no evidence to corroborate this statement... The only fact that seems to support her theory is that the character, which has been played on Broadway by three different Caucasion [sic] actors, was now being played by an African American... How ironic that in reviewing a show about the vilification of a green girl she should cite an actor's skin color to make such a baseless, illogical point."

When asked about his reaction to the Invasion review, Jamil Khoury (artistic director of Silk Road Rising ) responded: "Let's be clear what Hedy is endorsing - a long discredited policy that in the eyes of law enforcement officials does NOT work, and is designed solely to humiliate, dehumanize, and intimidate entire communities of color. Racial profiling knows but one rule - white people are innocent, law abiding citizens, people of color are suspect and criminal. What then is she saying about Chicago's Asian and Middle Eastern theatre artists? Chicago's theatre artists of color? People with names like Malik and Jamil? What is she saying about us? She wants us all to be racially profiled? Or only those of us assumed to be Muslim, Middle Eastern, or South Asian? "

When asked what he felt a review like this means in the bigger conversation of race and representation in theatre, Khoury responded: "If one of the leading arbiters of 'theatrical wisdom' in our town endorses racial profiling, then what does she think about expanding representation on Chicago's stages? Is it a bad thing? And what are her readers thinking? The conversation on race and representation in theatre will ultimately be shaped by those who are driving the conversation and aligning that conversation with a changing America."

The outrage of Khoury and many others inspired some artists to write directly to the editor, demanding action ranging from an apology to dismissal. One artist who wrote such a letter was playwright Caitlin Parrish, whose hit play A Twist of Water enjoyed a lengthy run with Route 66 Theatre Company in 2011 before moving off-Broadway the next season. She noted that in Weiss' review of A Twist of Water , "[Weiss] used the term 'husband' in quotation marks, as though the protagonist had not actually lost a spouse, merely lost the idea of one. ..[a] casual dismissal of a homosexual relationship's validity."

She went on to write: "Limiting the freedom of any racial, social, religious, sexual, or gender group has never ensured the freedom of the masses. And, once again, her telling use of quotation marks is in full force. Only this time it's 'the Arab male' which seems more like an idea to her than an actual person... this is the very heart of oblivious racism. The ability to turn actual people into the idea of people, and toss them away like so much used paper... the cultural conversation of Chicago is owed more than what Ms. Weiss has to offer. The city and its artists and audiences are owed more. She is not writing reviews. She is writing bigoted screeds, and that is not her job."

Ike Holter (whose play Hit The Wall played at the Steppenwolf Garage Rep and Theatre on the Lake with The Inconvenience before moving off-Broadway the next season) also wrote an impassioned letter to the editor, putting the situation in a bigger context: "There was a very large story in this country last month about racial profiling leading to the death of a 17 year old in Florida. I don't understand how this review can pick at that very fresh wound and be published without any kind of repercussions for the writer."

"I am surely not saying that Weiss is a racist," he added. "I'm simply saying that she posted some very racist comments, and for that, action must be taken... this review is a toxic bit of pain that is creating a massive blowback in many Chicago communities. People are furious."

People are indeed furious. It is no secret that being a person of color in any industry is difficult, but it is especially difficult in an industry where perception of an actor can arguably affect ticket sales or worse, their ability to get work. This is one of the reasons that this incident is striking a chord with so many.

"I'm Muslim, I'm Pakistani, I'm an actor," said Mirza. "Hedy Weiss' comments make me feel like I'm supposed to add 'and I'm not a terrorist' into my identity just so people like her feel safe. I don't know when it became acceptable for a theatre review to be used as a platform for racist and marginalizing commentary."

Reyes echoed the sentiment: "It's reviews like hers why, more than ever, we must keep telling more stories that challenge the uninformed and ignorant views of minorities in America. We have a voice too: Arabs, Asians, blacks, Latinos, gays, whites, whoever. And if any of us feel like we've been marginalized in any way by her words, it's our responsibility to speak out and let her know and let her readers know."

In trying to make sense of this incident and what it means to the Chicago theatre community at large, I hearken back to Mr. Kushner's response to Weiss' review of Caroline, or Change , in which he wrote: "A good play lasts a lot longer than a bad review." In terms of what Weiss wrote about the play itself, it is arguably not a bad review. She praises the actors' performances and gives a quick summation of the plot. It bears repeating that it is the review's reductive and ostensibly intolerant tone which has caused outrage.

As a queer theatre artist of color, I must confess that it is disheartening that these conversations still need to happen. It is frustrating that I wrote about similar issues on this very column not even a year ago. It is maddening that many will brush this aside, saying that Weiss is entitled to her opinion, claiming that we live in a post-racial world. Read the sentence "What practical alternative to profiling would you suggest?" one more time, a sentence that appeared in print in a major newspaper, and tell me that we live in a post-racial world. I dare you.

It is laughable that Weiss' editor thinks an eleventh hour quick fix followed by the explanation that "a previous version of this review contained language about racial profiling that may have been perceived as expressing a political opinion" will whitewash this incident away. May have been perceived? Not "may have," it has. Weiss has the right to that opinion, but she is also accountable to it and to those who are offended by her sharing that opinion on an inappropriate platform.

Mostly, it is ironic that Weiss' headline for the review reads: "INVASION! arrives at a divisive time in the world." No, Ms. Weiss, your statements come at a divisive time in the world. And if the removal of offending words without an apology is meant to count as a solution to the outrage and backlash, I'm going to quote your (now edited) review one more time: "I don't buy it."


UPDATE (8/9/13): Jamil Khoury has posted an extended response to the Silk Road Rising blog. Hedy Weiss responds on Jim Romensko's blog.