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Features Published 10 April 2017

Roundtable: Is Jesse Green the right choice for the New York Times?

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.
Exeunt Staff
Jesse Green, Co-Chief Theater Critic of the New York Times

Jesse Green, Co-Chief Theater Critic of the New York Times

After theater critic Charles Isherwood was fired, the New York Times announced an open search for that position. In March, we learned that the Times had not just named a replacement, but hired a “co-chief” theater critic to work alongside Ben Brantley.  Jesse Green joins the Times beginning May 1.

For the past few years, Green has been the theater critic at New York magazine.  He writes with a vibrant flourish and the result is smart and engaging criticism.  He often wrestles with sexism and racism in the shows he’s reviewing and does not shy away from contextual criticism (his take down of the West End transfer of Miss Saigon is a recent example). He’s a talented, high-profile writer who is a peer to Ben Brantley—hence sharing the mantle of co-chief critic (a title long denied Isherwood). But is he the right choice in 2017?

Nicole Serratore:  Beyond Green’s ample qualifications lurks a frustrating reality. He did not even apply for the job.  We learned from an interview he did that he was just offered the job. Despite the “search,” they handed the biggest job in theater criticism in America to another white man.

With the potential to hire a writer of color, a trans writer, or another under-represented writer in that role (with a playwright led public campaign urging them to do so) and give power, prestige, and opportunity to voices we hear less from, the Times shied away and went with the expected.

For me this opens up questions I’ve been wrestling with for a while—How do we make theater criticism inclusive?  Even where there is diversity in the ranks of critics how do people get seen and promoted? Is there an element of implicit bias in place to prevent female, trans, and POC candidates from being seen as “lead” critic material? At what point will the New York Times’ staff theater critics reflect the theater world around them?

Putting work by diverse artists into the world and not having diverse critics engage with it does theater and criticism a disservice. When I review work, I try to interrogate my biases, question my assumptions, and keep an open mind to the many shows I see. But sometimes there’s a part of me that thinks someone else should be having this critical conversation with readers because it would be a better, richer discussion than I can offer. Not to sell myself short. I’m the exact right person to review some shows.  But not all shows. And if we don’t make space for all those exact right people to review all this work from minds and experiences and lives lived so different from our own, we’re missing out on some killer discourse. But more importantly the work of the artists is only being half-understood.  How can new work grow, develop, or find a following if we’re only having half a conversation?

Hailey Bachrach: The line that jumped out to me from Green’s interview was when Green quotes his new executive editor [Dean Baquet] as saying, “It’s wrong to try to solve all of an institution’s diversity problems in one hire.” So the answer is… to not solve any of them with this hire? It reminded me of the argument one inevitably hears when raising questions about diversity: that whoever was doing the hiring/play selection/casting chose “the best person for the job.” But of course there are always going to be smart, talented white men available. I think Green is definitely one of them. But defending his choice on the basis of his talent, which many people are, is beside the point.

If not this hire, which? At some point, every organization has to make an active choice to hire a woman or a person of color or a trans* person or someone who’s any combination of those. It will almost certainly mean hiring someone whose career path doesn’t look quite as linear, or maybe doesn’t tick all the boxes that the white men who are applying have been able to tick. An organization just has to have the imagination to value things beyond the expected laurels that white men still have huge advantages in attempting to gather. (Packing the rank-and-file with diversity while the top jobs are still held by white men—as we so often see in literary departments, and as Green’s editor seems to be implying the Times plans to do—only counts for so much.) It’s always puzzling to see people in positions talk about diversity as this lovely goal that’s somehow out of their reach, gosh, what a shame. It’s entirely in their hands.

Loren Noveck: Yeah, [Baquet’s] line really stuck out to me as well, for all the reasons Hailey and Nicole mention but also because Green is someone who’s one hundred percent a known quantity as a writer and a critic, who’s coming from a platform that’s at least very close to equally prominent. I think I’d feel almost as frustrated if they’d given it to Hilton Als in the same “let’s offer him the job” way—you’re taking an establishment voice and shifting him to a different slot in the establishment.

I would also desperately love to have been a fly on the wall in the conversations that led them to open a search and then change their mind and offer the position to Green. If the announcement of Isherwood’s departure had been immediately followed by the announcement that Green would replace him, I think I’d be…not less frustrated but perhaps less disappointed, because I would not have had that moment of thinking, ‘Hmm, maybe they’re serious about trying to rethink their theater coverage.’

It’s a symbol, at best. Really what’s wanted is a plethora of voices and conversations. There’s no way two prominent staff positions (even if the Times had been sincere about this search) can represent that plethora of voices (and sometimes I think there is also value in being the “wrong” person to review a show, because no show can or should only be seen by its ideal audience). But in picking this particular symbol, the Times has sent a number of messages: that they don’t value the voices of their own non-staff critics (who are a more diverse pool) as much as the voice another institution has accredited; that they’re not interested in bringing in a voice who might do something surprising; and that they’re not really interested in broadening or complicating the conversation.

Now the question becomes: who does New York magazine hire or promote to replace Jesse Green, and are we going to have this conversation again two weeks from now?

Hailey:  We have to acknowledge that the Times itself has especially weighty symbolic value. I don’t really think we’ll be having the same conversation in the same way in a few weeks when New York magazine announces their replacement. (Well, WE probably will be.) But I think the possibility that a woman or a person of color could be hired as a top critic by THE NEW YORK TIMES (fanfare) led to so much of the hope and excitement.

But probably hoping for diversity to come from the top down is silly. Maybe we should be looking more closely at Green’s replacement, in the hopes that a slightly smaller establishment will be a little braver.

Nicole: I’m mostly afraid New York magazine will just end its theater coverage all together.

Hailey: That hadn’t even occurred to me… though now that you say it, it seems distinctly possible.

Nicole: There’s still a part of me that wishes that if the Times decided to just offer the job to Green then they would have instead made two simultaneous moves—hire him as the “co-chief” but bring someone else on staff full-time to show their commitment to developing new voices or nurturing someone who would grow into that role eventually.  Plant a flag and say we meant what we said about making a change.

Maybe making it an “open” search has brought new writers to their attention and over time we’ll see other shifts in coverage but with Baquet’s comment I’m discouraged by that prospect.

Loren: I wonder whether the firing [of Isherwood] started the process of a longer-term succession plan that takes into consideration Brantley’s retirement or moving on—but that’s another conversation.

Nicole: I saw Matt Trueman’s response to the hire in What’s On Stage. He noted, Green’s “appointment seems to have gone down well.” He must not be following the folks I follow on Twitter because there was a lot of shock and disappointment on my timeline.  But to his point, there has not been a public outcry. However, there are a lot of angry off-the-record conversations taking place.

I believe we need to talk (and write) about these kinds of visible setbacks (which certainly go beyond the Times and this one hire) because over time they wear on us.  A Twitter pal tweeted recently “Rainy days and patriarchies always get me down.” And man, some days I feel it. These symbolic defeats ring a lot louder for people who’ve been bashing their heads up against them for a while. It’s a privilege to brush them off as “diversity quibbles” as Trueman does.

Martha Steketee:  Intense scrutiny for the comings and goings in high visibility critic berths is essential. The social scientist in me and my ongoing work on the Women Count study sponsored by the League of Professional Theatre Women, of women playwrights, directors, designers and other staff Off-Broadway tells me this over and over. We have to track the successes and the challenges of women in theatre.

Am I disappointed that the Times didn’t go with a woman and/or a person under 40 and/or a person of color and/or … and/or. Yes in part. You get your hopes up, you believe change is possible, you see a future for the range of critical voices, you hope for a particular outcome up to the buzzer, and then experience disappointment. It’s not quite the U.S. election we’ve all recently lived through, but it was a disappointment.

At the same time, Green is a marvelous writer and an established voice with a perspective that is smart, often irreverent, thoughtfully dramaturgical where appropriate. Yes, he already had a New York-based berth at New York magazine, but who’s to begrudge career changes? I hope Green’s old berth will remain open, that ongoing musical chairs assemble a more colorful and varied family of critical voices in New York. We must celebrate the smart and thoughtful and numerous female voices writing in New York, and around the country, with long-term stringer or lead positions in Chicago and San Francisco and other locales.

Yes, I was disappointed by this recent hire for its optics and the immediate opportunity lost. And I see change happening. And I’m keeping track.

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