Power and vulnerability

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I spent a day at the Winona County Historical Society for my research project about theater in Minnesota in the 1960s and 70s this week and I ran across this wonderfully hostile exchange between a theater critic and a director, from 1979.

The two clipped documents don’t list the name of the paper- I assume it was from the Winona Daily News, but I can’t be sure. The first is a review by Lucy Choate Eckberg, the Family-Living Editor about a play produced by Winona Community Theater called “Night Watch”.  The reviewer criticized the play’s dialogue, calling it “boring” and “tedious,” and though she praised certain actors, called the costuming “questionable” and made fun of one actor’s dialect.  “One could speculate throughout the production whether she is supposed to be Swedish, Spanish or Polish, only to be surprised in the final scene to learn she is German,” Choate Eckberg wrote. Finally, she questioned the director’s portrayal of an Italian character by a Black actor, who played the part comically.  “Whitmore’s portrayal of a ‘jivey’ and not too bright policeman (reminiscent of Jack Benny’s Rochester) could be construed as an embarrassment to other Blacks who are striving for a non-stereotyped and more dignified image,” she wrote. 

The director, Robert J. Carr, shot back a fiery response in a letter to the editor. “As a director, I welcome and am open to any intelligent, astute comment or criticism of any production with which I am involved,” he wrote. “However, when a definitely biased, incongruous and contradictory report is presented to the public in the guise of qualified and intelligent journalism, I feel compelled to comment,” he wrote. He then proceeded to point out Choate Eckberg’s name misspellings, criticized her for giving the plot away, for having no sense of fashion, and called her objection to a Black actor playing an Italian in a comic way racist in itself. “That is a definite affront to black culture and society, smacking of racism and most definitely deserving of an apology to the black community in general and Mr. Whitmore specifically,” he wrote. He also slapped the reviewer down for speaking in loud whispers during the show and disturbing the other patrons, and for leaving after the intermission. 

The newspaper published the letter to the editor, with a comment:  “The reviewer was present for both acts. A review is the opinion of a person, nothing more than that. Amateurs, as professionals, should learn to live with that.” 

What delighted me about the exchange was to learn that tussles between critics and critics of critics are nothing new to the age of comment sections of online articles.  They have of course existed for as long as there have been letters to the editor.  

I was thinking about these two artifacts as I ruminated about whether I would write anything more about Billy Mullaney’s “The Only Story I Can Tell is My Own: A One Man Show with Eleven Women.” 

I wasn’t planning on writing anything about the show. I felt a little bit bad for coming down so harshly about it in my column a couple of weeks ago, especially before I even saw the play. I did go see the play (pretty much my misgivings about the show were confirmed) but I didn’t stay for the talk back, so I felt it wasn’t fair to write a review. 

Almost everyone that I spoke to at the show had read my piece about it. One friend said that she read my column before she had her required pre-show interview with Billy. Because of reading my piece, she said, she didn’t get angry during the interview, as I had, but was able to look at it as an intellectual exercise.

Then, a couple of days after I saw the show, Sarah Harper, from the Minnesota Daily emailed me and asked if I was going to be writing a second piece about it and, if not, would I talk to her about my thoughts. It turned out I did have a lot to say and I spewed out a long email about my issues with the show — mainly that it lacked a female voice outside the male construct (that, and that it was painfully untheatrical and rather self indulgent). 

But I was afraid to write about it. First of all, I didn’t want to get a bunch of criticism for not staying for the talkback (the fact that it took two hours to get to the talkback was part of what annoyed me about the show).  I also felt like maybe it was a bit mean-spirited to write a second blast at Billy, who really does seem to be a talented performer and intelligent person, but who I feel took a huge mistep with this production. 

I was afraid, perhaps, of being vulnerable. Ultimately critiquing something, as evidenced in the historical documents cited above, is one of the most vulnerable things you can do, because you are opening yourself up to criticism of your writing, your process, and your taste. There have been numerous occasions that I’ve had to grow a thicker skin, as angry readers wrote not-so-nice things about me, albeit in defense of performances about which I’ve written not-so-nice things. It can be an emotional business, writing reviews.

Interestingly, one of the issues that I brought up with Billy when we had our interview was that he said his play was about his own vulnerability. I told him that I felt his place of privilege allows him to have that vulnerability. Writing, too, is a privileged exercise. It is a source of power, of privilege, and also of vulnerability. 

I have never felt as empowered as when I found a venue for my voice to be heard through writing, but empowerment, it seems, comes hand in hand with being open to criticism. Still, I’d rather take the heat than not be heard at all.