Defining Diversity Down: The Meaning of Jesse Green
In an article in Exeunt Magazine (featuring, among others, CFR contributor Martha Wade Steketee), there’s a thoughtful roundtable that gently laments the hiring of Jesse Green, soon-to-be-former theater critic at New York magazine, to replace Charles Isherwood as one of two main theater critics at The New York Times. Following a blunt headline (“Is Jesse Green the right choice for the New York Times?“), there’s a subhed that reflects a mantra in some of the coverage surrounding his hiring:
As yet another white man is hired to the most prestigious job in US theatre criticism, Exeunt’s New York writers ask when the conversation will really change.
“Yet another white man,” of course, is exactly what Green is. What bothers me about this is what those driving this debate choose to prioritize. Not that being “yet another white man” in a powerful reviewing position at the Times isn’t a subject for legitimate discussion. But insofar as we believe that a person’s demographics directly influence how they receive and review theater, race here is deemed more crucial, more determinative, than Green’s age or the fact that he’s Jewish and gay. If “yet another white man” at a significant position at the Times means questioning whether a real opportunity for diversity has been frittered away, surely the other aspects of Green’s demographic profile should hold meaning as well.
In an interview that Green gave recently to American Theatre magazine, he wittily embraced this truth:
I’m a trifecta of non-diversity: I’m a gay white Jew, and that’s almost the entry requirement to the theatre in New York.
Setting aside for a moment to what degree that “entry requirement” is funny, outrageous or simply sad, let’s acknowledge that the topic of the appropriate demographic profile for Times theater critics really matters to a select few people. I’d argue that this is one of those “theater people talking about theater with theater people” pseudo-debates that most consumers, and probably many artists, don’t sit up all night wondering about. Who does care who are the co-chief theater critics at the Times? If you’re one of the 300, 800 or 37,000 investors it takes these days to open a commercial production on Broadway, then probably you. After that? Nobody really knows.
True, there are still plenty of theatergoers making purchasing decisions based on what a Times critic writes. But whereas 25 years ago the power of a Times critic was vested in the ability to keep a show running or, more often, to shut it down, today that power is widely seen as diminished. As my colleague Michael Barra, President of Araca Media and Entertainment, discussed in his recent CFR article “How the Rise of Big Media Is Disrupting Broadway,” theater is increasingly poised to exist as extensions of a brand. As consumers come to know and trust those brands, the need for, and the power of, a critic will inevitably erode still further. As a critic myself, this is terrifying and the subject of much nail-biting and teeth-gnashing. But a theater critic’s central power today is vested more and more in influencing cultural dialogue, not on dollars being spent.
Some of us also believe in something less tangible than the relationship of theater critics to commerce. We wonder to what extent, if any, a critic’s personal background — in this case, Green’s white male gay Jewishness — affects how they receive and respond to theater, and to what degree that response remains the best we can do for an increasingly diverse pool of artists and consumers. Purists will counter that a critic is a critic is a critic: great work, and the ability to recognize and describe it for readers, should not be bound by personal demographics. But in reality, there is no way the life experience and sensibilities of white male gay Jewishness are ever the same — not equal to, just the same as — that of a non-white non-male non-gay non-Jew or any other set of categories and combinations thereof. Green’s hiring is not only a missed opportunity for a major news organization to demonstrate how diversity as a concept is inherently virtuous, but how in a practical way it can demonstrate ongoing value for an audience.
In that American Theatre story, Green talks about his own relationship to diversity during an earlier stint as a Times freelancer:
You know, when I started out I was ‘diverse.’ I was an openly gay man at the Times when you couldn’t even use the word gay, and the macro- and microaggressions around trying to write about openly gay stuff were unbelievable, let alone when I was trying to write about trans people in the early ’90s and you couldn’t use their preferred pronouns and there was so much prejudice. It was terrible. And it gives you a feeling of solidarity with those who are facing those representation and misrepresentation problems now.
Those of us who don’t happen to be Dean Baquet — the first African-American Executive Editor of the Times and the man who ostensibly suspended the well-publicized search for Isherwood’s replacement to hire Green — certainly may wish to critique Green’s hiring by reflecting it back onto our own personal agendas. I’m going to be 49 next month; if my agenda involves where, at my age, I would have liked to have landed, I might whine about Green’s hiring, since he’s roughly my contemporary. All of us have personal agendas. Political ones, too. But then there’s the question of whether we can see and act and plant our flags beyond our own narrow ken. Whether we can think about what’s important beyond what is self-important.
This is why I’m loathe to join the “yet another white man” chorus without simultaneously remarking on the fact that the long-serving chief critic of Times, Ben Brantley (Green’s soon-to-be co-Chief Critic), is also gay. Nor is Brantley Jewish, but let’s be honest: American journalism doesn’t exactly lack Jewish voices. For the greater good of theater criticism as a legitimate form of journalism and for the greater good of theater as an art form, yes, I’d have preferred that the Times authentically looked for, and found, a 30-year-old woman of color or a 34-year-old man of Asian ethnicity or even — in the spirit of a long tradition — pulled some 27-year-old reporter off the sports desk and provided them with a shot. (People are going to scream about this latter idea. They’ll argue that putting someone with limited theater cred into a position of influence serves neither artists nor readers. That may be true. I also believe average theatergoers don’t have decades of submersion into the art form like Green does, and that there could be value in a critic writing in a style closer to the language of the consumer. It’s still probably not the best idea, but my greater point is that the ideal of diversity to me is one which, in its heart, is broad-thinking, experimental, adventurous and ambitious, now narrowly confined to this or that demographic silo.)
We are then left with the question of what responsibility Green now has for defining diversity down at the Times. Surely Baquet didn’t put a gun to his head with an offer he couldn’t refuse. To what degree is Green — like Ivanka Trump — now “complicit” in the problem? Is he getting a pass? Read the American Theatre interview very carefully. Its author, Rob Weinert-Kendt, editor-in-chief of the magazine (ah, yet another white guy, this one heterosexual, enjoying privilege atop a masthead), clearly gives Green — as well as the Times, for whom he has freelanced — a pass in his lede:
The critical talent pool is just not as wide or deep, demographically speaking, as it should be.
Hillary Clinton should be President. The Phantom of the Opera should close already. I should have a trust fund. The real question isn’t some throwaway nod to what “should” be before merrily forgetting about it. The real question is what I, or we, should do about what “should” be? While in this interview Weinert-Kendt does his best Frozen Elsa and lets it go, let’s recall that article in Exeunt. With a bit of simmering umbrage, the participants focused on the entirety of Green’s response to whether the Times blew it by hiring him. Remember how I quoted, earlier in this post, his cheeky line about the gay white Jewish “trifecta of non-diversity”? It’s worth reading the statement that line comes from in full:
…I didn’t seek the job; I was offered the job. And the first thing I said was, “Don’t you want someone who brings more diversity to the table?” When I spoke to Dean Baquet, the Times’s executive editor, I raised the issue. I’m a trifecta of non-diversity: I’m a gay white Jew, and that’s almost the entry requirement to the theatre in New York. He said something quite interesting — and he should know — he said, “It’s wrong to try to solve all of an institution’s diversity problems in one hire.” I have to believe that they wanted me for things that took priority. I wasn’t going to turn down the offer; I’m not a saint. But I share the critique that the theatre would be better served by more diversity.
Standing up for diversity doesn’t qualify a person for sainthood. What differentiates a person for whom diversity is a lived value, not some distant Oz at the end of some yellow brick road, is what each of us do on our journey there — what we do about what “should” be. When the rubber met the road, Baquet’s offer didn’t bother Green that much. At least not enough to say to Baquet:
You’re totally right, Dean: no one hire can solve an institution’s diversity problems. But I want to be your active ally for the imperative to address the diversity problems among the critical voices at The New York Times right now. As your new co-Chief Critic, how can I help you to achieve this shared goal — starting on day one?
But he didn’t say that, so far as we know. I wonder why that is.