By: Mark Glennon*
You’d think the theater world would take pride in its ancient traditions of irreverence, provocation and heterodoxy. Not Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater and many people in its community.
Inherit the Wind has always been my favorite play. It’s about the 1925 Scopes trial in which a young teacher was prosecuted for teaching evolution. Scopes lost, but his famous defense by Clarence Darrow at the trial, which was carried live by WGN radio, helped pave the way for acceptance of evolution. Critics of the theory at the time ridiculed the notion that we’re all “monkeys’ uncles,” which originated the phrase. The play celebrated Scopes’ bravery in his stand against them.
“Monkey’s uncle” is rather mild compared to what a Sun-Times theater critic, Hedy Weiss, is being called for her review of Steppenwolf Theatre’s production of Pass Over, a play about young black men stuck in the ghetto.
Weiss’ review, linked here, is far from entirely critical. “The essential premise of [the play], now in a brilliantly acted world premiere at Steppenwolf, is unquestionably inspired,” she wrote.
But she triggered the thought police because she wrote that the last ten minutes of the play are a “simplistic, wholly generic characterization of a racist white cop (clearly meant to indict all white cops)” and for writing that black-on-black violence was ignored.
Out came reactions like “white supremacist,” “racist,” “bigoted,” “homophobe” and much more. She’s a body-shamer as her critics see things, too, based on past things she wrote, though I’ve found nothing more than a mild aversion to political correctness.
Chicago actors are running a petiton on Change.org requesting that theaters cease giving her free tickets to plays she reviews — an obvious effort to shut her down.
Steppenwolf Theater joined the smear, sending this shameful statement to the Chicago 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. [Emphasis added.]
Denying systemic racism makes you a bigot, you see. Gee, I think I’ve heard that before.
Newspapers, fortunately, have mostly chimed in on Weiss’ side. Even the far left Reader defended her.
But then there’s the Columbia Journalism Review. It describes itself this way and is regarded as such by many journalists: “It is [not strives to be, is] the intellectual leader in the rapidly changing world of journalism..the most respected voice on press criticism…an essential venue not just for journalists….”
It criticized the petition signers, though sheepishly, and kept its readers’, whose politics are well known, happy by adding these gems:
• The black-on-black violence Weiss thought pertinent is just “a well-worn right-wing media talking point, and certainly irrelevant to the issue of police treating black and white citizens differently.”
• Weiss has made “unsophisticated” remarks, the Review says (OMG). For example, they say Weiss once cited the Boston Marathon bombing and asked, “What practical alternative to racial profiling do you suggest?”
Thanks for that intellectual leadership, most respected voice on press criticism.
Maybe Scopes was wrong that everybody is a monkey’s uncle. Some seem more like monkeys’ asses.
UPDATE 6/23/17: Some other theaters have joined Steppenwolf in trying to silence Weiss, as discussed in a Chicago Tribune article linked here. And the Sun-Times has published an article linked here standing by Weiss.
*Mark Glennon is founder of Wirepoints. Opinions expressed are his own.