How Diep Tran Hones Her Theater Criticism — With Anger

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Diep Tran. Photo: John Nguyen.

It is fashionable to debate the importance of cultural criticism. The debate questions what criticism is and who is and is not a critic, challenges us to imagine what the audience for criticism should be, and considers proper critical comportment. We believe critics themselves must not be sidelined from the debate. In Critical I, critics tell their own stories and offer their own views of criticism. Our latest interview is with “journalist, editor, invisible observer” Diep Tran, Associate Editor of American Theatre magazine and a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Salon, and TDF Stages.

Please provide a personal statement of +/-150 words.

I love discovery. The best part of my job is sitting in a theater not knowing what to expect, and being blown away by a play, a writer or an idea I had never thought of before. I strive to share that sense of wonder with my readers, and to open their minds and hearts.

I am also an unabashed populist. I want to make writing about theater accessible to people of all different ages, races, genders and socioeconomic backgrounds. In my writing, I try to make a case for why this art form that I love is relevant to people’s lives, and why it matters today. It’s partly a selfish impulse — most of the time I am one of a few faces of color in the room. And it’s an uncomfortable feeling. I want more diversity so that I’m not the only person of color in the room.

What city or town do you live in? Where did you grow up? Where’s your favorite place on Earth?

I live in NYC, but grew up in Anaheim, CA. My favorite place in the world is my parent’s house in California, with a bowl of my mom’s mì quảng.

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Do you consider yourself a theater journalist or critic or a bit of both?

In today’s shrinking media landscape, I don’t think it’s possible for critics and journalists to be separate, and I never considered them separate professions. Even when I first started writing at the Daily Bruin, the UCLA school newspaper where I did my undergrad, I wrote both reviews and features. I love coming into the office every day not knowing what I’m going to work on. On a given day, I could be writing a critical essay, reporting an article, recording a podcast, or editing someone else’s writing. I don’t think I could ever be a full-time critic. I have opinions about plays, but I trained as a reporter and I will always love that most. I find that my thinking and writing becomes richer when I can talk to artists, and have people I can bounce ideas off. I don’t love my own voice that much to subject people to it on a regular basis.

As a critic, what is your main area of expertise? How did you acquire it?

As the old reporter saying goes, if you’ve written three articles on a certain topic, you’re an expert. I guess that makes me an expert on diversity in entertainment. I have no problem calling artists and institutions out on whitewashing, appropriation, inequity and white hegemony.

I stumbled onto those topics by accident. In 2012, La Jolla Playhouse mounted the musical The Nightingale by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik, directed by Moisés Kaufman. The musical was set in ancient China, where the Chinese emperor was played by a white actor. I got angry, and noticed not very many journalists were weighing in. So, I wrote a piece for my personal blog called “The Yellow-ish Nightingale,” detailing why yellowface was wrong. I wouldn’t write an op-ed like that again for another few years, but the reaction from that piece planted the seeds for the work that I do now.

Knowing that my words were causing conversation, and making a difference in how people think and how they treat each other — that was electric. What else can you want as a journalist? I found that I do some of my best writing when I’m angry.

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Where and when was your first professional review published?

In college, it was a 2008 restaurant review for the Daily Bruin. For a professional outlet, it was 2009 when I interned at the OC Weekly and reviewed Hair at Chance Theater. It was my first theater review and I loved the production. A few years later, after being hired at American Theatre magazine, I ran into the artistic director of Chance Theater, Oanh Nguyen. I told him how much I loved that production. We bonded over being Vietnamese people in the theater, and have been friends ever since.

Which areas of cultural criticism have you not covered but wish to try? Why?

I’ve written about theater, TV and film, and I would love to do more. I don’t believe in the designation between high and low culture. It’s all culture to me, and equally influential — the characters on Game of Thrones are a few of my favorite things. I also wish I could write more about visual arts to put my degree in art history to use.

Can anyone be a critic? Why or why not?

I think anyone can be a critic because everyone has an opinion… But I also think that it takes years to be a great writer and thought leader. You need to expose yourself to art, develop your ideas, talk to people and hone your writing. My writing is significantly better now than it was five years ago, and my understanding of the theater industry has deepened, which has made my prose richer. I don’t think you can start off as a good critic, but with practice, greatness is possible!

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Which living critics, in your own or other field(s) of expertise, do you admire? Why?

So many! Manohla Dargis is practically why I became a critic. I also love Emily Nussbaum, Roxane Gay, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Alexis Soloski, Wesley Morris, Jessie Green, and Frank Rich. They have all influenced my writing by how they think about art, culture, race and gender. They’re also sharp and funny as hell, even if I don’t always agree with them.

Which dead critics, in your own or other fields(s) of expertise, do you admire? Why?

Unpopular opinion: I’m more influenced by the work of my living colleagues than I am with those who are deceased. And in my spare time, I more prefer to read fiction than dead critics — sorry Pauline Kael!

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Name a review in which you were dead wrong, and why.

I wrote a positive preview of a play called His Royal Hipness Lord Buckley which featured a white jazz musician talking about race relations, with an all-white jazz band. It hadn’t even occurred to me that the optics were problematic. Then I read a powerful piece by Seth Simons about why the play was a troubling piece of cultural appropriation, bordering on minstrelsy. It made me realize just how blind I still was, and why dialogue continues to be so important.

Name a case in which most critics were wrong and you were right.

I think I’ll always be known as the woman who hates Miss Saigon. I know plenty of other critics disliked it, too, but not many of them pointed out the misogyny, the white-savior narrative, and the overreliance on Asian stereotypes. As a discerning theatergoer, you can probably watch the show and know that something doesn’t feel quite right about it. But for me, having to deal with a lifetime of seeing the narratives about my people co-opted by white voices, the show was a particular punch in the gut. I was able to bring the voice of people who have traditionally been disenfranchised into my writing, and I think that’s what made my piece about it so powerful.

If you weren’t a critic, what would you be? Why?

I don’t know! I’m still getting used to this being my grown-up job! I did want to be a fiction writer when I was younger, and I hope to do that one day.

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What is very wrong with contemporary cultural criticism?

First, the field is not diverse enough, full stop. Frankly, as a woman of color, I am so tired of being told by old white men which works are important. Just look at the Pulitzer Prize: why did it take until 2017 for a woman of color to win the prize for the second time? It’s not because we didn’t exist before Lynn Nottage; it’s because white men occupy positions of power in our society and dictate what gets produced and what becomes a modern classic. They are either not interested in hearing stories by women of color, or they can’t comprehend them. More diversity of tastemakers means that we’ll be able to recognize the beauty of different voices and different stories, and we’ll have richer conversations about those stories. White men have been in control of the culture for too long. It’s time for change!

Second, theater criticism can be myopic and rote. Critics tend to review the show in front of them without making a case for why that show is relevant to the reader’s lives, and how it connects to the greater society. “Why this play now?” is a question that not very many critics do a good job of answering. Theater matters not because it’s an artifact of a bygone era but because it tells us something essential about our humanity and the world we’re living in. I wish more critics made a case for that part of it, instead of turning reviews into a theatrical history lesson. Who cares if you saw the last revival of Sunday in the Park with George? I want to know why the musical matters, what it says about art and life, and if Jake Gyllenhaal is a good singer!

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What is very right with contemporary cultural criticism?

For younger critics coming up today, no one believes that being a full-time critic is a viable career option. Like artists, we don’t do this for the money. We do this because we love the arts and journalism and we want to live in it in any way we can. The passion is alive, even if the jobs aren’t there. We are creating our own opportunities, playing with different media and forms of journalism, and writing about theater in addition to other beats. We are creating our own outlets and using social media to publicize our voices. We don’t always need mainstream outlets to validate our voices anymore, and that’s quite freeing.

In up to 150 words, please review yourself as a critic.

I didn’t plan to be a critic; it was an impulse that I accidentally stumbled into. At American Theatre, I’ve built a niche for myself in a publication that traditionally didn’t allow its editors to write criticism. This impulse helped me discover who I am as a writer, what I believe in, and what excites me. I don’t know where I want my career to go but I know I want to continue to open people’s minds and help make our culture more diverse and equitable.

In up to 140 characters, please review yourself as a critic.

I’ve been figuring it out as I go along and so far, it’s worked out! Onward to more writing and rustling more feathers!