On Critics and Criticism
GE: We’ve talked about this before but I’d like to get it down on tape if you don’t mind.
GE: Critics, reviewers, whatever.
DTW: Well you know, my feeling about critics, whether they are necessary or not, like those award meritocracy things they do, is that they are a functioning regular part of this profession. It’s inescapable. You present a play professionally and reviewers will write critiques and publish them. Ideally you hope that they might be serviceable in a positive way to stimulate or reveal to you and the audience a more insightful view of what you’ve done or haven’t done. I mean you hope that what you might learn from it is significant and important enough that it helps to give you a vision outside of the participants and yourself because it could inform and even help you to do better work. But hell Gus, in my experience, I find that in the main, critics and reviewers don’t usually do that. They don’t do it for the mainstream work coming out of the majority culture and are at an even greater disadvantage when looking at or attempting to assess Black theatre. The majority of critics looking at black plays come to it from a reductionist perspective. In other words they try to reduce the dimension and the achievement in many of the black plays they see by trying to fit them some old fashioned Ibsenite , Eurocentric unit of size, and importance and everything else.
GE: Why do you think that is?
DTW: Because when it comes to black theatre and what we at the NEC were doing they were usually two, sometimes three steps removed from the immediacy of what they were familiar with or comprehended. And it wasn’t just because 99% of them were white that this excluded them. No, that wasn’t it, because insight into what is going on stage could be brought by anyone by anyone of any color if that person is knowledgeable and insightful about the culture and the lives and practices of the lives being presented on stage. It’s just that I is very rare for most of these critics to show that they had much insight into works coming from their own background and culture. And since they hardly know that how the hell are they going to know anything about ours? So early on I stopped expecting anything much coming from them.
Now saying that, as we went along and they became more familiar about where the plays were coming from several of those critics began to develop the ability to respond to certain types of works with some degree of accuracy and insight. But on the whole this was not generally true…Understand now that I’m not talking about what they were critical of or what they gave negative reviews to. I talking about the works they applauded and praised. The stuff they were fucking enthusiastic about. To me, frequently the angle they were coming from in dealing with those particular works were off the point and lacked insight. It was almost arbitrary. They seemed only able to deal with things they could label with terms like “the black protest play” or “the family drama”. The problem is that of course would not acknowledge their ignorance and therefore would not seek to figure out the means that would make them better equipped to appreciate and appraise some of the works that we were doing.
I guess what I’m essentially saying is that as artistic director or actor or director or writer I had very few times when I found the judgment or reportage of what had been done to be very enlightening beyond what I already knew about that particular play. And more often than not, I felt that I had a better, truer and wider grasp of the work than they did even though I was looking at it from within. Gus, I’m saying that very few times did they ever surprise me with sufficient insight so as to make me say; “Oh that’s right. I know so and so’s right about this.” And I can make it better or improve on it because they pointed it out to me. There were a few times when the critics were helpful on that level, but not very often.
GE: I’m not clear, on what level?
DTW: On the level of being the middle person to their own public. From a pragmatic perspective they could be helpful because after all they are the opinion makers. Therefore from a commercial standpoint they can make a difference with their consumers, the white audience. With the black audience only residually so. That is because what they say can sometimes create an atmosphere that will eventually affect some element of the black public. But with an institution like the NEC it wasn’t that significant.
DTW: Because the NEC had from the start succeeded in appealing directly to the black public through a shared interest and through word of mouth. Therefore we were never much affected by whether the NY Times, Post or Daily News like our shows or not.
GE: I know that’s true because my play Weep Not for Me which didn’t get any kind of encouraging review in the daily papers was still popular with the NEC audience. So much so that you extended the run.
DTW: Yes. The people loved that show with all that incest and shit going on. And they didn’t bring all that positive and negative shit to it either. They just knew that they were looking at some crazy motherfucker making the best of a crazy situation and they were enjoying it. Shit, we had some playwrights I had to ban from the theatre because them motherfuckers were coming every night and sitting up in the balcony just to watch the shit and laugh. You know who I’m talking about.
GE: Yes, I do.
DTW: They were having a good time so shit they were coming every night. And that’s how it was with the audience.
GE: I remember when you extended it and I asked you why, because I guess based on the reviews I didn’t think it was any world shaker. You said to me;”Gus the people want to see the play. I wouldnt’ve extended it if that wasn’t the case.”
DTW: That’s true. And that wasn’t the only time that happened over and over with different plays.
GE: I know.
DTW: But going back to my original point, it isn’t that black people don’t read or depend on the newspapers for information. Things like discovering a play was there, that it opened and that a picture from the production gave a sense to its existence. Let’s face it, the black public reads the Daily News and other tabloids in great numbers. So for information and publicity, these papers served us. But ultimately the black public came because they liked what we represented. They liked what they were seeing and the fact that they could count on us to continue to do it on a regular basis. That’s why they came, not because of any sampling from rave reviews. Conversely, the white public generally came because of their opinion –maker’s advice. So with a rave in the Times the percentage of our white audience would go up for those plays. But that wasn’t true with our black public. They came because they were curious and faithful.
GE: So what would you say is the ideal function of the critic?
DTW: The ideal function of criticism, I think, would have been to give us outside views to rely on more than our inside, subjective knowledge to depend on. That’s why I had an idea that black critics might be able to do that and that’s why I’m sorry we were never able to develop a regular cadre of black critics we could rely on.
GE: Why do you think that is?
DTW: Several reasons. One seems to be that as soon as we had say a hundred black writers striving to write most of that energy was going into the tributary or river of creativity. Or put another way, works of imaginative creativity. So many of the people who I thought might evolve into major critics went that way.
GE: Like whom for instance?
DTW: Well Larry Neal for one. He had done enough work in that area that he had a volume of his comments published. I always wanted to encourage Larry to at least concentrate on his critical writing. And by doing that he didn’t have to give up on his creative writing aspirations. But I always wanted him to at least continue regularly to develop his critical output because the quality of his mind, his insights and so forth, his lack of narrow subjectivity equipped him in becoming a major commentator and critic for what we were doing creatively. But Larry wanted to concentrate on his own creative writing. He wasn’t interested in putting that amount of time that I would have liked into his critical writing. But he’s just one example. There’s a lot of creative writers out there that if we had cultivated or had the time or leisure to put into it would’ve been fine. And then we would have had a number of good critical writers. The problem is what we did finally wind up with; many of those who got the shot had too many subjective axes to grind. The one who was at the Times for a while –
GE: Who was that?
DTW: I don’t want to get into names. But what I’m saying is that he had so many likes and dislikes that were so obviously subjective determined that suddenly I didn’t think that his reviews were insightful or reflective enough of an objective outlook. I’ll give you an example what I’m talking about. He, this same critic, made some snide remarks about two of the actresses in Ceremonies, the original production that I almost wanted to protest very sharply because he wrote a whole paragraph about what being a woman was not. Saying that Ros (Rosalind Cash) was not being a woman which had nothing to do with the review. He also never revealed the fact that just before the last workshop of the play was done he had been an actor in it. This was one I was not involved with. This was done at some college in Staten Island I think. Now I’m not saying that this disqualifies you from reviewing the play. But as a reviewer myself I would have probably in the first or second paragraph reveal my own personal involvement in it for the reader to at least see where I’m coming from. Then you can accept or not accept what I say, but at least you know that I was being totally open with you. I would say “I’m going to talk about a Gus Edwards play. But first I want to say that Gus Edwards is a friend of mine.” And then go on from there but he didn’t do that. So it undercut his objectivity and whatever he had tom say so far as I was concerned.
GE: But you did try to develop some black critics didn’t you?
DTW: Yes, we tried with that thing we did when we presented Niger.
GE: I think you told me once that an intelligent balance for black theatre was: A) the production of the play B) a majority black audience to witness and experience the play, and C) black critics to analyze the work. Is that correct?
DTW: Yes. And to that end we sought out a majority black audience for all our plays. The reason Gus, is that it keeps us culturally honest. Because if we’re misrepresenting or stereotyping aspects of black life they’re going to catch us and point it out. And maybe curse you out too. The black audience ain’t shy about telling you full of shit. They’re not like the white audiences who have been educated out of responding in a primary way. Our folks speak up and that’s what’s wonderful about them.
GE: Now as I recall, in your search of a representative audience at each performance you guys went so far as to withhold tickets from sale to the general public at the box office in order that they would go specifically to African Americans who might come later. Right?
DTW: Yes, that’s true. You see when we had a show that got great reviews in the Times or wherever, white people who read those reviews would line up at our box office. If we sold all our tickets to them we would have a house that was maybe 90% white folks and 10% black. This was because most of our folks don’t read reviews and come out of spontaneous response or word-of- mouth. As a result they often came at the last minute in search of tickets. So to insure that the balance would be somewhere in the area of fifty/fifty I asked the box office people to hold back fifty or sixty for them. Sometimes it was really awkward to do because you would have this line of people waiting to buy tickets and we would put up that sign that all tickets were sold out. Then we would have to find a quiet way of telling that black people that we had seats for them. I did it because I felt that it was important to have them in the audience for all the reasons that I just explained.
GE: I know that part about word-of- mouth is true because I was in Boston doing a show when A Soldier’s Play opened here. I was staying at this hotel were a lot of other black folks, mostly theatre people, were staying and the next morning over breakfast all I heard was about this terrific new show that the NEC had just opened with all these handsome men walking around on stage without their shirts, that they all wanted to see. This was coming from the women but a definite buzz was in the air. And I don’t remember anybody ever mentioning that it had also gotten good reviews. Just that it was a great show and there were a lot of handsome men on stage…Anyway, I want to go back to the part about getting black critics to review the shows and what you tried with The River Niger.Can you elaborate on that for me?
DTW: What I was trying to do was establish a precedent. I wanted to say that black theatre now exists. And because it does we need to have a regular representation of black critics in attendance. And since we didn’t have a black daily paper we needed to come up with a way of making sure that our black critics’ opinions were occurring. So when The River Niger opened I invited Jean Carey Bond, a contributing editor to Freedom Ways magazine, Joseph Opaku, editor and publisher of the Third World Press, Lindsay Patterson, editor of the book Black Theatre: A 20th Century Collection of its best Plays and Maurice Peterson, an editor and critic for Essence magazine. They were invited under the proviso that what they wrote we would print, no matter what they wrote, no matter how they felt about the play. Their opinions were their own; we would not interfere with that. The only limitation they were given had to do with word count. This was because we had bought a certain amount of space in the New York Times to print their reviews and as I remember it wasn’t cheap. But even then a couple of them didn’t stick to the agreement anyhow. So if you go back and look at the way they are printed you’ll see that we had to use three different of type of print -face in order to make them fit. But still the black critics were represented. The irony of course is that some of the opinions expressed by the four of them were somewhat less enthusiastic on the surface than let’s say Mel Gussow’s review in the New York Times. So it was obvious that those reviews were in no way compromised by the fact that we were paying for them.
GE: Why the New York Times?
DTW: Because in terms of theatre criticism they are the most influential. They have the largest circulation and readership. I wanted the black critics to reach the same audience. They are the paper of record. I wanted to give these black critics the same exposure as the white critics.
Commentary. The top of the space in the New York Times read: The Negro Ensemble, interested in stimulating and giving broader exposure to black theatre criticism presents the opinion the opinion of four Black reviewers invited to appraise its Tuesday December 5th opening night performance of Joseph Walker’s play The River Niger… The NEC solicited these views and assured their publication sight unseen, totally unedited whether favorable or unfavorable. The only condition being the limitation of space.
DTW: We did it again with Charles’s play In the Deepest Part of Sleep. This was in ’74. That time the critics invited were Vernetta Jarvis, a staff critic for Black American magazine and Lindsey Patterson. After that we couldn’t continue. We didn’t have the money to continue. What I was hoping to do was create an atmosphere where a regularity of black critical opinion would be given a hearing in a regular way not just in a weekly or monthly paper or magazine but in a daily newspaper. But we ran out of money and I couldn’t get any grant money to continue it. We wrote proposals but we were turned down. But if I had gotten the money I would‘ve done it for every play. I mean fuck Gus, I even a particular black writer who doesn’t function as a critic but he sometimes comments on cultural matters. And I said; look I would like you to come see this show because I’m doing something with music that I don’t think the other critics, good or bad, are going to grasp but you might have some sensitivity about where the spectrum of how the music fits due to your familiarity of the culture and your writing about it. That doesn’t mean that he would necessarily agree with me or I with him but at least he would know where I was coming from with that stuff.
GE: What about other black theatres, could you have partnered with them?
DTW: Gus, we made inquiries but the other theatres were either ill-equipped, not interested or weren’t advanced enough to know or understand why this was important. You see, what I wanted was a situation established so that when somebody let’s say 20 or 25 years from now in search of history or research they would find black critical opinion as well as white being brought to bear on our work. But as I said we ran out of money so it just didn’t happen. But the primary effort was to break the tyranny or monopoly of the critical point of view coming only from totally white critics and set a precedent. But I’ll tell you if we had succeeded and had been able to keep on doing it I’m sure that the newspapers would’ve rejected it after a while because they would have seen it as being competitive with their own opinion in that sense.
GE: In other words, as Langston Hughes put it that was: “Another dream deferred.”
DTW: Yes, I guess you could say that.