By Delia O’Hara / Washington Post Style section
March 19, 2015
CHICAGO — Principals, playwrights and supporters of Steppenwolf Theatre’s young-adult program blasted back at the negative reviews that Chicago’s two top theater critics gave their gritty new play recently. And while the play finished its run this month, the quarrel continues to raise intriguing questions about just what is a critic’s job.
The controversy began March 1, when Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune and Hedy Weiss of the Chicago Sun-Times both filed reviews that charged “This Is Modern Art (Based on True Events),” by Kevin Coval and Idris Goodwin, with romanticizing graffiti writers and glossing over the destructive aspects of illegal street art.
Within hours, the play’s director, Lisa Portes, was claiming “censorship” on Facebook, and her supporters piled on with colorful posts about the critics, too. As the days rolled on, Coval, who is white and has plenty of gray in his beard, dismissed the two critics as “old white people.”
Even for one of America’s most passionate theater cities, it has been a wild couple of weeks.
“This Is Modern Art” fictionalizes the true story of the crew that wrote on the outside of the new Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2010 as the tale of three young men who love “writing” for the thrill of putting their names up in style for everyone to see. They plan a hit on the museum, and it is successful, but the attention that falls out from it forces the writers off the streets, and sends their lives caroming off in different directions.
One scene, which both newspaper critics found off-putting — Weiss called it a “ ‘how to’ manual” — has the crew instructing the audience on what to bring along for a night of writing, including things that might be useful to have in jail, in case they get arrested.
Within hours of the publication of Jones’s and Weiss’s reviews, Portes castigated them on Facebook as “white, upper-middle-class critics of a certain age . . . wringing their hands and gnashing their teeth over the portrayal of artistic rebellion by urban youth.”
Jones, 51, responded on Facebook the next morning: “So a real pleasure to wake up to artists you respect calling you an ‘idiot’ and a ‘racist.’ All for daring to suggest that a show for young people, part of an educational program with a study guide, might do a better job of suggesting that graffiti also has a downside for our beautiful shared city.”
Weiss, 65, who had called the play “wildly wrong-headed and potentially damaging” to young people, took most of the heat. In an interview, Hallie Gordon, artistic and educational director for Steppenwolf for Young Adults, singled out Weiss’s review as “irresponsible and personal.”
“Part of my responsibility is to engage young people and get them excited to walk through the doors,” she said. During a previous production (one the critics loved), a number of kids in the audience fell asleep, Gordon said. “The kids pulled their hoodies over their heads and conked out. The adults loved it. The kids didn’t. You have to meet them in an authentic way or they are going to shut down.”
With attendance for nonmusical theater down 33 percent nationally in the decade that ended in 2012, according to the National Endowment for the Arts, attracting young people, especially young minority people, given the strong growth likely for that demographic in the coming decades, is critical for theater groups.
In the case of “This Is Modern Art,” the controversy didn’t hurt the show’s sales. The two performances the weekend after the dust-up on social media sold out. Discussion groups after the performances were also packed, the best attended ever for the series, Gordon said.
For her part, Portes said she thought the reviews were a “form of soft censorship.” She wrote in an e-mail, “Reviews like these could certainly hurt a theatre financially and discourage taking a similar risk in future.”
For Weiss, who has tangled publicly with a number of creative types in her 30 years as theater critic at the Sun-Times, criticism from the Steppenwolf camp and its sympathizers “comes with the territory. It comes with being honest and sometimes not politically correct. Some things have to be said. And I didn’t tell them to shut it down. I just told them it was wrong-headed.”
Playwright Coval thinks that’s overprotective, even “pejorative.” Young people “are much more intelligent than the critics give them credit for,” he said.
Jones, too, disagrees with the role of censor. “A review is an opinion on a show.” He rejected, too, the charge that he couldn’t judge the play fairly because he is white, older than the intended audience, and perhaps more prosperous.
“That’s the part where I have to contain my frustration,” he said. “Chicago is full of young work. No critic matches the demographics of every show. The job of the critic is to see the work in the terms the artist intended.”
Coval’s co-author, Idris Goodwin, 37, said on his Facebook page last week: “This is what it means to do theater in Chicago. The artists and audiences engage with art like a full contact sport.”
And the discussion wasn’t confined to Chicago. New York-based Howard Sherman , who is the director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at the New School for Drama, took to his blog to discuss the disagreement. He found both critics’ reviews so “devoted to condemning graffiti and vandalism, and taking the play to task for not sharing that perspective, that it’s very difficult for me — and I would assume most readers — to assess whether the play might be something I want to see, which a daily review should do, even a negative one.”
But what of the tension inherent in graffiti, between the art of the writer and the fact that his or her canvas is a structure that belongs to someone else?
For Roger Gastman, in his teens a Washington, D.C.-area graffiti writer and now a curator of street art and documentary filmmaker, there isn’t much ambiguity.
“Graffiti in its truest form is illegal,” Gastman said. “You’re writing on things you’re not supposed to write on. It’s in your face. That’s the whole point. In the end, kids will be kids. It isn’t any fun to get arrested, but it does weed people out.”
Now that “Zore,” Mario Gonzalez Jr., is 45, the former subway artist works in his Chicago studio more or less full-time, but he said of graffiti, “It’s not vandalism; it’s beautification.”
Gonzalez said most writers don’t hit residential property, unless someone happens to own “a rooftop facing the subway. I’ll hit that,” he laughed. “That is a prime spot. It’s about getting your name out, your style.”