More Casual References to Race in Theater Reviews
This post was written in two parts: before and after the attacks in Paris. In between, I found myself in a professional and moral quandary, unsure as to whether to finish the post, and, if I did, what it would accomplish. Given the last 15 days — Paris (130+ dead); Beirut (40+ dead); Sinai (220+ dead) — it feels silly to pore over the words that arts administrator and “theater advocate” Howard Sherman pores over in his post, “Casual References To Race In Theatre Reviews Prove Troubling.” It feels almost petty beside the global carnage.
But words do matter. They are the fuels of violence and the instruments of peace. If we don’t look at words, understand their meaning and divine their users’ intentions, then we’re doubly responsible for their result.
On Nov. 11, the High Court of Howard Sherman charged Dominic Cavendish, theater critic of The Telegraph in London, with a Word Crime. In his review of the National Theatre’s revival of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Cavendish casually referred to Leon Annor as a “man-mountain black actor.”
Early in the trial, Sherman asked a question of his readers, the jury:
Have I taken these words out of context, in order to emphasize them? I have certainly extracted them from a much longer sentence, but that’s because they are so fleeting in the overall review as to pass unnoticed by many readers.
And so he furnishes the full sentence:
A match is set up for Orlando against the wrestler Charles (man-mountain black actor Leon Annor in shiny gold cape) – this test of mettle is conducted on crash-mats with lots of flashing lights, pounding rock-music and moronic chanting by the spectators.
Then, as a follow-up, Sherman asks:
…does the actor’s race matter? None of the other actors are identified by their race in the review, although there are other actors of color (or to cite the UK term, “BAME actors,” referring to Black, Asian and minority ethnic) in the production. Is there any legitimate reason for calling out this one actor’s race, since it is not being discussed as germane to any interpretation of the production or the particular scene. It is, so far as I can tell, casual and irrelevant.
Then he does a “close reading” of Cavendish’s four-word phrase:
Combined with ‘black,’ does ‘man mountain’ mean to imply that the character is in some way more dangerous or threatening? It could certainly be read that way. Would that have been mentioned if Annor was white?
Sherman scanned other reviews of the production in search of Word Crimes, and, finding nearly none, accuses not just Cavendish but media overall of casual bias. He’d have hoped that “man-mountain black actor” would “set off alarms of caution to any writer or editor on either side of the Atlantic,” and it didn’t. That is worrisome, offensive, unfortunate and wrong. Sherman is right.
Unlike Sherman, I’m a professional theater critic and arts journalist with a 25-year record. I’m also a twice-degreed theater practitioner. And, in either context, “man-mountain black actor” isn’t a phrase that I’d have written. It’s not even a phrase that would occur to me to write. To validate just one part of the High Court’s prosecutorial line, I don’t sense from Cavendish’s review that Annor’s race had anything to do with anything, let alone his acting. It’s fair to find the critic guilty of gross insensitivity for being, well, casual about race.
My issue is that Sherman aims to divine Cavendish’s intent without offering the jury sufficient evidence of ill will — as opposed to ignorance, insensitivity and/or stupidity. Sherman wrote that Cavendish
…simply happened to say what in my opinion was the wrong thing at the right time.
And that’s because Sherman himself is
…on ever more heightened alert to what some define as micro-aggressions by the members of the arts press, who are hardly alone in needing to grapple with their language choices surrounding the subjects of race, gender, and disability, to name but three.
Members of the jury, if we’re to talk about words and what they mean, we need definitions. “Casual,” according to dictionary.com, has seven:
“Aggression” has four:
In the first published draft of this post, I neglected to research, understand and respect the theory of “micro-aggression.” That is an ignorant omission on my part and I apologize. As defined by Derald Wing Sue, “micro-aggressions” are “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.” They are therefore more insidious — assaults by a thousand cuts that do not hurt any less just because those who do the cutting feel, claim their actions were benign. An hour of real research on a busy night can yield a good critical education — such as when a plunge into micro-aggression leads to a detour into aversive racism, a term initially associated with writer Joel Kovel and later on ascribed more fully to Samuel L. Gaertner and John F. Dovidio. It covers “complex, ambivalent expressions and attitudes toward racial and ethnic minorities” when individuals “rationalize their aversion to a particular group by appeal to rules or stereotypes.”
Or, to put it another way, you can say it was micro-aggression on my part not to explore and demonstrate at least a cursory understanding of these concepts.
But, with your indulgence, I’m going to return to something I offered in my first draft: the idea that “casual” and “aggression” (micro- or full) are incompatible, including as employed in Sherman’s indictment. Cavendish’s “casual” references to race were insensitive, yes, and they were extraneous and ignorant. Are all insensitive references to race, however, automatically micro-aggressions? I understand that the idea of micro-aggression is to disempower and dismiss intent — to declare intent irrelevant, since whether the person intended to hurt or not, hurt was inflicted. My problem with disempowering and dismissing intent as a mitigating factor is the way it strips the perpetrator of any opportunity of apology — and redemption.
Cavendish may have believed, however wrongly, that he was just reporting. Not that it justifies or excuses his words because it doesn’t: hurt was inflicted. Cavendish’s words, however, also do not prove that the critic did, in fact, fear the sight — to use Sherman’s own words — of a “giant black man” on stage.
Sherman correctly asks if Cavendish would have told his readers if Annor was white. The answer is obviously no — which is why I agree with the part of Sherman’s indictment that’s fair, just and obvious on the merits. Yet what do we know of Cavendish’s heart? Isn’t it vital to determine whether the critic intended to make a hurtful, racist remark? Shouldn’t we, in our deliberating, want to know his intent even if some of us opt to dismiss it?
Sherman doesn’t tell us anything about Cavendish. We don’t know if he contacted him for either explanations, retractions, reflections or comments. Even if you, like Sherman, decide that Cavendish is straight-up guilty of micro-aggression and Word Crime, let’s note that I checked Sherman’s site, and Cavendish has never been mentioned before. A Google search is easy to do.
Not only is Cavendish the Telegraph’s theatre critic, he is its comedy critic, and a playwright and adaptor. His website is criticalmuse.com; his Twitter handle is @domcavendish (10,100+ followers); and he co-founded TheatreVoice.com, the “leading site for audio content about British theatre.” Currently, the site’s top stories are on the Belarus Free Theatre. The site is managed by the Department of Theatre & Performance at the V&A Museum. It is dedicated to the memory of late playwright Sarah Kane. This is on the site’s About page:
It was set up in 2003 to see if theatre could be talked about in a new way: allowing critics to be more expansive than the usual space constraints of the print media allowed; to enable actors, writers, directors and designers to be heard talking in detail and at length about their work; and to help members of the public interact more directly with theatre-makers and commentators.
Please now consider some additional evidence.
Sherman chose, it seems, not to solicit Cavendish for comment, he offers neither insight nor theory as to what did go into the editing and publishing of that “man-mountain black actor” phrase. If we can agree on the critic’s guilt — and I think we do — would you agree that trying to get into the mind and heart of the perpetrator, to try to divine his intent, would be useful to deciding his punishment? Do we not, in our system of laws, agree that crimes are crimes, yes, but crimes are also crimes of degree? Have we decided that felonies — murder, for example — are to be crimes by degree, but Word Crimes not? That all Word Crimes are equal in their hurt, equal in their damage, equal in their evil, and therefore equal in their appropriate punishment?
I tried to imagine the circumstances under which Cavendish could have been so hurtful:
- He’s an asshole.
- He had an hour to write his review because he can’t manage time and took a glib shortcut.
- He weirdly thinks Annor’s race is dramaturgically significant to As You Like It somehow, and wrote a paragraph that his editor cut.
- He’s clueless when it comes to sensitivity about race and will read this post and be mortified.
- He thinks As You Like It is a timeworn Shakespeare play and, like Ben Brantley’s review in The New York Times of Yasmina Reza’s The Unexpected Man back in 2000, didn’t have anything much to say, and so relied on insensitive and inappropriate descriptors like citing Annor’s race.
What’s that about Ben Brantley?
Sherman chooses not to tell you about the long, fascinating history of criticism pertaining to the physical appearance of actors and therefore to weigh Cavendish’s Word Crime against that history. Stateside in our era, for example, no theater critic flagrantly attacked actors’ looks more than John Simon, who likened Liza Minnelli to a beagle, called Kathleen Turner “a braying mantis” and argued that Minnie Driver had a face “begging to be slapped.” Shaw’s minute side-by-side of Duse and Bernhardt, and Hazlitt’s vivid descriptions of Edmund Kean, are 19th century examples. But back to Brantley. He opened his review like this:
Shall we start with Eileen Atkins’s right leg? It is, like her left leg, slender and shapely, and it has no doubt served this fine actress well over the years as something to stand on. But in The Unexpected Man…Ms. Atkins turns her right leg into something far more resonant: an index of the vanity, anxiety and authority of the woman she is playing.
Rhapsodizing Eileen Atkins’ right leg is not the same as casually reporting on an actor’s race or size, that is true — I mention it only to show the possibilities here. And this is why divining intent, and considering degrees of a crime, are key to this trial. In committing a Word Crime, did Cavendish intend racism when he called Annor a “man-mountain black actor”? Is it punishment enough to call him out, to chasten him enough to learn something, like I did? Sherman himself offers a hint of an answer:
…it is the likelihood that they were casual statements by white critics about actors of color that I find so worrisome…
Oh, that word — “casual” — again, battling that other word, “aggression.” May we convict Cavendish of insensitivity and cluelessness, and perhaps, as with Brantley, of not having much to say. But may we not convict him of malice — the fuel of intent — without evidence.
Sherman could have read other Cavendish reviews. He could have identified patterns in his writing. So I did it for him. And I did find some things of note.
Had Sherman looked up Cavendish’s page on The Telegraph’s website, he’d have found recent reviews of Dear Lupin (adapted from the book), Three Days in the Country (at the National), The Importance of Being Earnest (in the West End) and Bakkhai (at the Almeida) waiting to be read. The latter production stars actor Ben Whishaw, about whom Cavendish wrote:
Whishaw, 34, has the handsome-devil looks and brooding aura that could inspire a cult. From the moment he steps across replica rocks onto the simple stage in T-shirt and jeans, long feminising hair hanging round his bearded face (think Jesus meets Austrian Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst), he casts a spellbinding hold.
What does Whishaw’s age have to do with anything — is Cavendish ageist? What is “feminizing hair” — is the critic a homophobe? If you wish to accuse me of the same out-of-context emphasizing that Sherman admits to doing, let me point out, in fairness, that Sherman tells his readers that arts critics must:
…grapple with their language choices surrounding the subjects of race, gender, and disability, to name but three.
I agree. And here’s the full paragraph that contains that sentence:
My exploration of racial references in reviews of As You Like It in the UK are in no way meant to be attacks on the British arts press or to suggest we don’t face the same problems in the US media. Cavendish’s review simply happened to say what in my opinion was the wrong thing at the right time. That is to say, I saw it at a moment when I am on ever more heightened alert to what some define as micro-aggressions by the members of the arts press, who are hardly alone in needing to grapple with their language choices surrounding the subjects of race, gender, and disability, to name but three. There are times, especially given the limited amount of space afforded to arts coverage, when mentioning race can be at best superfluous and at worst insidious.
And here’s what Cavendish wrote earlier this year of Imelda Staunton’s Momma Rose in Gypsy:
…it looked as though the diminutive actress already had the measure of this complex creature…
What does Staunton’s height have to do with her acting? Doth the critic have an adjective problem?
Race isn’t height, height isn’t size, size isn’t gender: I concede this. Will you concede that Cavendish didn’t compare Annor to a beagle?
I expect conscientiousness, sensitivity and thoughtfulness of arts critics. I further expect conscientiousness, sensitivity and thoughtfulness from those who indict critics for Word Crimes. If Sherman is to be on “ever more heightened alert to what some define as micro-aggressions” from the arts press to artists (and notice how he writes that “some” people might define some words as micro-aggressions), then must we also be on “ever more heightened alert to what some define as micro-aggressions” from Sherman toward the arts press? I feel that Cavendish deserves a fairer trial than offered by the High Court. And while the verdict may be unchanged — draw and quarter Cavendish, show no mercy — I ask that you make the punishment fit the crime. Must not a determination of intent remain crucial to our deliberations? I think they should. Words harm. Words heal. As you deliberate, ask yourself if we ourselves commit a crime when we, in demanding what is right, too blithely assume intention, but not prove it, when we assign guilt. If we do that, jury members, then we are guilty, too.