The Crisis of Criticism, Redux
Signy Lynch, York University and Michelle MacArthur, University of Windsor
In February 2020, Ojibwe/South Asian artist Yolanda Bonnell asked that reviews for the Toronto production of her show bug be written only by Indigenous, Black, or critics of Colour (IBPOC), citing both the cultural specificity of the work and the systemic racism embedded in “current colonial reviewing practices” (“Why playwright Yolanda”). While the largely white critical establishment as a whole respected the request, critics displayed varied, often limited, understandings of Bonnell’s reasoning. This high-profile incident represents a larger trend in Canadian theatre wherein reviewers, “as gatekeepers for theatre in this country,” intervene in dialogue between IBPOC artists and their intended audiences and circulate misrepresentations of their work and cultures (Nolan 107-108). Yvette Nolan calls these kinds of problematic reviews “bad medicine,” which she locates in the critical reception of theatre made by other ethnically and culturally diverse groups as well.
Bad medicine in Canadian theatre criticism is not new, but the pandemic and concurrent global protests against anti-Black racism have forced theatre critics to pause and take stock of the unsustainable and harmful practices that perpetuate it. This moment of crisis presents an overdue opportunity to re-envision theatre criticism. Our presentation will examine three central questions: (1) How do theatre reviews reinforce white, settler critical perspectives? (2) How are publications, reviewers, and theatre practitioners attempting to push back against these perspectives and broaden critical discourse? (3) What might this present moment offer us in terms of re-making theatre criticism? Beginning by historicizing the questions and issues unleashed by Bonnell, we will highlight how IBPOC artists are demanding new models of theatre criticism and enacting them in their own practices.
Nolan, Yvette. Medicine Shows: Indigenous Performance Culture. Playwrights Canada Press, 2015.
“Why playwright Yolanda Bonnell asks that only people of colour review her play Bug.” CBC Radio, 10 Feb. 2020. https://www.cbc.ca/radio/q/monday-feb-10-2020-yolanda-bonnell-oscars-panel-and-more-1.5455921/why-playwright-yolanda-bonnell-asks-that-only-people-of-colour-review-her-play-bug-1.5456383
Signy Lynch is Ph.D Candidate at York University. Her SSHRC-funded dissertation is on direct audience address in contemporary theatre in Canada. She has published work in Canadian Theatre Review, alt.theatre, and CdnTimes, and is co-editor of an upcoming edition of Canadian Theatre Review vol. 186, “Theatre After the Explosion.”
Michelle MacArthur is assistant professor at the School of Dramatic Art, University of Windsor. This presentation is part of her ongoing, SSHRC-funded research project entitled “Gender, Genre, and Power in the Canadian Theatre Blogosphere.”