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Theater: Solving Problems In 1 Hire?

By Wendy Caster
arttimesjournal April 6, 2017

As you probably already know, the New York Times recently gave the job of Co-Chief Theater Critic, one of the most powerful positions in theater, to Jesse Green of New York magazine. In the five days since the announcement, I’ve been chewing on the news that the Times took the radical, ground-breaking step of hiring a gay white man, educated at Yale, for the job. (Yes, that’s sarcasm.)

Here’s the thing: Jesse Green is an excellent critic. He’s thoughtful and insightful; he has a heart; and he can write. So that’s that, right? Nothing more to discuss.

Except there’s plenty still to discuss, or at least to think about. How did Green get as good as he is? One of the best ways to improve one’s writing is to write, get published, get feedback; write, get published, get feedback; write, get published, get feedback. Green has had that chance, again and again. And while there’s no doubt that Green’s success has been based on his talent and hard work, he’s also had the sort of opportunities that remain out of reach for many women, people of color, and non-Yale graduates.

I know at least one woman who is every bit as good a critic as Green. Liz Wollman is my colleague at the theater blog Show Showdown. She’s the author of The Theater Will Rock: A History of the Rock Musical, from Hair to Hedwig and Hard Times: The Adult Musical in 1970s New York City. She’s Associate Professor of Music at the City University of New York. She can write, and she has a unique point of view not currently represented at the Times.

And I’m sure that, with a little effort, I could find other excellent writers who are not white men.

But, hey, Green is still a legit choice, so fair’s fair, right? That’s what I told myself.

Then I read this, from the interview with Green in American Theatre:

    American Theatre: So I have to address this: A lot of folks were fervently hoping, and openly advocating, that the Times not make their next theatre critic another white man.

    Green: I was one of them. 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.

It’s wrong to try to solve all of an institution’s diversity problems in one hire (!!!).

Well, that’s a convenient point of view, isn’t it? When does Executive Editor Baquet think it’s right to address diversity issues? Since the Times is unlikely to ever hire dozens of writers all at once, the only way to solve their diversity problems is individual by individual. (I won’t even address the fact that the Times, after advertising for a critic, offered the job to Green, who didn’t even apply.)

(I was just checking the links in this article and discovered that Baquet is African-American. Trying to figure out if that makes this situation better or worse is giving me a headache.)

I wish Green the best of luck. I don’t blame him for taking the job; like he said, he’s not a saint, nor should he be expected to be. But I do blame the New York Times.

Here’s hoping that New York magazine shows more imagination when it hires his replacement.

( Wendy Caster is an award-winning writer living in New York City. Her reviews appear regularly on the blog Show Showdown. Her short plays You Look Just Like Him and The Morning After were performed as part of Estrogenius festivals. Her published works include short stories, essays, and one book. )