Hedy Weiss has been Chief Theater Critic for the Chicago Sun-Times since 1984, a popular fixture in theater circles for decades. But that has changed in recent weeks. Leading arts figures in the Windy City have created a petition demanding that she no longer be invited to productions.
Weiss’ “crime”? She keeps posting opinions the Chicago theater scene finds offensive. It all came to a head when Weiss recently reviewed Steppenwolf Theater’s production of playwright Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over, a modern black version of Samuel Beckett’s classic Waiting for Godot.
Weiss liked what she saw but made a reference to “black on black violence” and noted: “For all the many and varied causes we know so well, much of the lion’s share of the violence is perpetrated within the community itself. Nwandu’s simplistic, wholly generic characterization of a racist white cop (clearly meant to indict all white cops) is wrong-headed and self-defeating.
“Just look at news reports about recent shootings (on the lakefront, on the new River Walk, in Woodlawn) and you will see the look of relief when the police arrive on the scene. And the playwright’s final scenes —including a speech by the clueless white aristocrat who appears earlier in the story and who could not be more condescending to Steppenwolf’s largely white “liberal” audience—further rob the play of its potential impact.”
Chicago Sun-Times critic Hedy Weiss
This doesn’t seem all that incendiary to us—just a right-of-center opinion on law enforcement. But playwright Nwandu was among the 3,500-plus signatories of the petition because she claimed that “HW did a hatchet job on my play and the theater community in Chicago deserves more.”
The petition, created by the rather-sinisterly named Chicago Theater Accountability Coalition, stated: “The Chicago theater community…have joined together to make it clear that inappropriate language or behavior does not have a place within our community, and that prejudice of any kind will not stand.
“Hedy Weiss, theater critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, has proven that she is not willing to work with us to create a positive environment. She has proven this repeatedly with the racism, homophobia, and body shaming found in her reviews. She has proven this by never, not once, apologizing to a party injured by her words.
“Since we believe that it is the duty of everyone in our community to uphold our very high standard for conduct, we formally request that your company not invite Hedy Weiss to the run of any present or future productions.
“To be clear, we are not calling for a ban on Ms. Weiss attending performances. We are simply requesting that she not be given a ticket for free. If she wishes to present her damaging views, we ask that she pay for the privilege.”
Far from telling folk to simmer down, Steppenwolf Theater Company, which ironically was founded by a prominent Hollywood conservative Gary Sinise, is piling on the pressure on Weiss.
Playwright Antoinette Nwandu
Steppenwolf artistic director Anna D. Shapiro and executive director David Schmitz told the Chicago Tribune: “We denounce the viewpoints expressed in some of these reviews as they fail to acknowledge the very systemic racism that Pass Over addresses directly.
“Particularly egregious are the comments from Sun-Times critic Hedy Weiss, whose critical contribution has, once again, revealed a deep-seated bigotry and a painful lack of understanding of this country’s historic racism. Her contribution is actively working against the kind of theater we are striving to be.”
Weiss is refusing to back down, saying that she stands by what she says and telling Columbia Journalism Review: “The theater is obviously not exempt from the general state of the world right now. And none of it is very pretty.” CJR itself noted the petition “reads as out of touch as any of Weiss’s remarks.”
Weiss has long been a provocative reviewer but it remains to be seen whether the Chicago Sun-Times will take any action over her “deep-seated bigotry,” such as replacing her with somebody who is one of the Chicago theater community’s friends, a person who will be more uncritical as a reviewer.
The theater critic has long been an endangered species. Turns out so, too, is the theater critic who possesses fearless independence of mind.