Boston Globe correspondent Jeffrey Gantz’s June 10 review of Company One Theatre’s production of Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them, by A. Rey Pamatmat, has caused quite a fuss.
In the review, Gantz infuriated some readers by saying the characters “make the occasional reference to their favorite Filipino dishes, but I wish more of their culture were on display.” Pamatmat is Filipino American, as are the play’s two main characters.
Almost immediately reactions started pouring in online, seemingly from as many people who had seen the play as had not. And this past Sunday, the Globe printed a letter from Company One saying, “The criticism that the play lacks Filipino culture ‘on display’ … is troubling.” Spiro Veloudos, artistic director of the Lyric Stage, also sent a letter to the Globe in which he groused: “This poor choice of words suggests that there is a singular Filipino-American experience.” Unless there is an alternative version of Gantz’s review floating around somewhere, I remain unable to extract any such suggestion.
It is perplexing to me that Gantz should be chided for his opinion, especially when the content printed in the show’s program is decidedly Filipino-centric. While the main characters are of Filipino descent (“They’re American, you know?” says Pamatmat in the show’s program), Company One has confusingly chosen to include a two-page history of Filipino-Americans, as well as two pages of Filipino recipes. It is far from calamitous for one to wish that some of the culture had been on stage rather than curiously immured to a program. “I agree about the recipes,” said Nick Dussault, theater critic for the Boston Metro. “It was an odd choice.”
I find the outrage over this kerfuffle to be misguided and unreasonable. While watching the play, the ethnicity of the characters never crossed my mind. They are, first and foremost, American, so while I don’t find Gantz’s comments inappropriate, it’s obvious that he looked at the play through a different lens than I did. But so what? Are we in a time of such cultural and social sensitivity that even a theatre critic should sanitize his opinion so as not to offend the vox populi? Is honesty in one’s work less important than fear of backlash? Is nothing safe from the outer realms of PC-ness? And if so, isn’t that an inversion of what makes people think about and discuss art?
“The value of any criticism is that it opens things up, stimulating ideas and conversation … what happened here is exactly what should have happened. The critic spoke and those critiqued spoke back. You gotta love the give and take!” said Joyce Kulhawik, president of the Boston Theater Critics Association.
Overall, the whole matter feels like a case of manufactured controversy and labored outrage. I ran this by Ben Brantley, chief theatre critic for The New York Times. “Every era has its landmines for a critic, but this time is especially fraught. This is partly because social media has created such a dangerous echo chamber, in which people can fire off instant opinions before they’ve properly read what they’re complaining about,” he said. “But I also think we’re in a period of linguistic readjustment … so, yes, being careful before you speak is more essential than it has ever been for a writer.”
Adam Feldman, president of the New York Drama Critics Circle and theatre critic for Time Out New York, said of the matter: “I don’t think the reviewer should be pilloried, but I do think it’s fair to point out the assumptions that go into such a critique. We all have blind spots and it can be useful to cast light on them,” he said. “And yes, it raises both the issues and the profile of the production, which is probably a net win.”
If there is anything regrettable at all about this entire rumpus, it is that Gantz’s praise of the play is light. I found Edith to be one of the most satisfying and winning productions in Boston this year, with top-shelf performances from three very gifted young actors. Gantz’s remarks are incontestably those of a man much older than I am, so perhaps there’s a generational aspect to this as well. You’ve got until Saturday to check it out for yourself, and I wholeheartedly suggest you do.
If there’s a general takeaway from the whole matter, it would be that while Edith can shoot things and hit them, others should probably stick to target practice.
No theater critic has found himself in hot water more often than John Simon, New York Magazine’s critic for 36 years. If Gantz’s divisive yet harmless words ruffled your feathers, Simon would have made your head explode.
“Smart as he was, and is, his homophobia, sexism, racism, whatever, betrayed by a lack of moral imagination. Critics shouldn’t hide behind the right to say what they want as a way of avoiding ethical imperatives. And Simon knows this, at least in hindsight” said Jesse Green, current New York Mag critic.
There are too many offensive quotes to choose from, but here are some of my favorites:
On Bernadette Peters in Annie Get Your Gun (1999):
“Miss Peters, however, is petite, cute, and cuddly, just an iota short (or long) of Jon Benet Ramsey.”
On Heather Headley in Aida (2000):
“Aida is Heather Headley…a tall, angular young woman whose acting consists of feral scowls, whose speaking voice is an ominous growl, and whose singing is a confrontational blend of bellowing and caterwauling. It is rumored that the true inspiration for Aida was Disney’s search for an excuse to market a black doll. If it does not make Hadleyan sounds to frighten little children, it should be a huge success.”
On Liza Minnelli in Cabaret (1972):
“Plain, ludicrously rather than pathetically plain, is what Miss Minnelli is. That turnipy nose overhanging a forward-gaping mouth and hastily retreating chin, that bulbous cranium with eyes as big (and as inexpressive) as saucers; those are the appurtenances of a clown – a funny clown, not even a sad one. And given a matching figure – desperately uplifted breasts, waist indistinguishable from hips – you just cannot play Sally Bowles. Especially if you have no talent.”
On Barbra Streisand in What’s Up, Doc? (1972):
“Miss Streisand looks like a cross between an aardvark and an albino rat surmounted by a platinum-coated horse bun. Though she has good eyes and a nice complexion, the rest of her is a veritable anthology of disaster areas. Her speaking voice seems to have graduated with top honors from the Brooklyn Conservatory of Yentaism…”
On Barbra Streisand in The Way We Were (1973):
“When Miss Streisand labors to appear sensitive and vulnerable, she cannot conquer our impression that, were she to collide with a Mack truck, it is the truck that would drop dead. And, as always, I am repelled by her looks; by the receding brow and the overcompensatory nose, which, unlike Cleopatra’s in Pascal’s famous dictum, would not, even if it were shorter, change the face of the earth…”
On Mandy Patinkin in The Winter’s Tale (1989):
“He looks rather like a caricature in the notorious Nazi publication Der Sturmer.
On Alfre Woodard in The Winter’s Tale (1989):
“Blacks do not belong in parts for white actresses, unless they can pass for white. That’s wrong – historically and sociologically and logically.”