Features Published 25 February 2020

Roundtable: Yolanda Bonnell requested that only people of colour review her work. Why the outcry?

Naomi Obeng assembles a group of artists, critics and academics to respond to Yolanda Bonnell’s request, and the Guardian article that followed.

Exeunt Staff

Yolanda Bonnell’s play ‘bug’, performed at Theatre Passe Muraille. Photo: Gilad Cohen/Theatre Passe Muraille

Naomi Obeng: On Friday 21st February, The Guardian published an article which asked three of their critics (Lanre Bakare, Catherine Shoard and Arifa Akbar) to respond to the fact that a theatremaker in Toronto, who is Ojibwe and South Asian, had asked that her show bug, about “women of an Indigenous family navigating addiction and inter-generational trauma”, be only reviewed by people of colour. The article was pretty baffling to a lot of us. So I thought we could start where the Guardian article started: what do you think of Yolanda Bonnell’s request?

Jimmy Dougan: I completely agree with Bonnell. As someone who directs stories about young people for young people, I’m reflexively wary of anything anyone 30+ has to say about my work because I categorically have not even considered them whilst making the work. I think good criticism comes from a place of knowledge, and I really disagree with (Guardian film editor) Catherine Shoard’s view that context and quality are separate things. One informs the other.

NO: It seems like a perfectly reasonable request to me, too. She’s had harmful experiences with white Toronto reviewers in the past, she cited this was the case for other Indigenous theatremakers, and the reviewing landscape in Toronto is very white. It reads like a protest, an act of self-care and an indictment of the reviewing community. It’s so basic to not have to subject yourself to racist reviews I don’t see why anyone would argue otherwise – other than a ‘slippery slope’ argument, which makes no sense to me.

Nemo Martin: I agree that it’s an act of personal protest and self-care – not a call to end the careers of all white reviewers but a request for her show.

I think that as playwrights we’re often asked what our audience is, who we’re writing for, and while many funding bodies want us to tell them that we’re bringing in “diverse” / “fresh” audiences, Yolanda is going that step further by stating her intention: that this show isn’t written for a white audience, so should be reviewed by someone who is not.

JD: I’d be with you, Naomi. The work was made to be experienced by one group of people, and I think she’s well within her rights as the artist who has made that to have a say in who is given a platform to publicly reviews it.

And I love this notion of protest – extending the political impact of the work by explicitly moderating who reviews it. It feels disruptive and it feels powerful.

Frey Kwa Hawking: I was most impressed with how Yolanda seemed to be using her request to try and draw attention to how change is needed in the field of theatre criticism, and the absence of a wide array of non-white critics already there for her: “Bonnell says that she doesn’t assume all critics of color will share her lens, but she is interested in opening up the field so we can hear new voices.” It seemed to me that two critics quoted in the Guardian article in particular would’ve benefited from paying closer attention to this part, as it contains an awareness of a lot of the points they raised.

This can precipitate material change, it’s not just a diva-ish request.

NO: So we all agree! Haha! Discussion over. I think it’s so interesting that this seems so obvious to us and not to other people. Do you think it’s something to do us with being makers / being close to making? Something that irked me about the article was this strange leap towards the notion of ‘quality’. I think if you’re making work from a tradition different to the canonical western one, this word starts to seep into discussions of the work you make, and it really shows ignorance and prejudice more than anything.

Ben Kulvichit: Totally – in the Guardian article Catherine Shoard’s opinion is that “getting a reviewer who understands the context behind the play is one thing, but assessing its quality should still be the primary concern.” Quite apart from the idea that it should be the primary function of criticism (I disagree), it’s baffling to me to think that one might be able to assess a play’s quality WITHOUT first understanding its context. There is no universal benchmark for quality, but if artwork-specific benchmarks exist, then they are established by the vocabulary, lineage, intent etc of that artwork.

NO: That’s so well put. It also ties into Frey’s point earlier about how the critics in the article would’ve benefitted from paying closer attention to Yolanda’s stated intention. Instead they were arguing hypotheticals rather than engaging with the facts of what Yolanda was doing / did. Which is kind of the issue that work by poc can come up against with uninformed reviewers – the reviewers assume that the work is trying to be something that it isn’t trying to be, and then they say that it was poor because it didn’t achieve it.

BK: Right – as critics we should always try to watch shows on their own terms.

NM: It also makes me very uncomfortable, the idea of quality in the review. It has a tone of “you should feel lucky to have quality reviewers attend anyway” as if Yolanda should feel privileged to get such professionals review her show, that they’ve deigned to give her their attention so she shouldn’t be looking elsewhere?

NO: When I first read the article I thought they would make the argument that there wouldn’t be ‘quality’ reviewers if the white ones were banned, I’m glad they didn’t go down that road. When both Arifa Akbar and Shoard mention quality they’re talking about the quality of the show itself, which is still problematic.

JD: What even *is* quality? Some abstracted notion of ‘quality’ does a disservice to the ways that audiences experience performances. It might mean one thing for a West End musical, but another for a small fringe show, and another for a transfer at the Barbican. I’ve hated plenty of ‘high quality’ shows, and loved lots of ‘low quality’ ones. Too often, when people say quality they mean how much money has been thrown at it, and that doesn’t feel too helpful.

NO: There were a number of odd logical leaps in the article that I can’t get over. Shoard says that it’s “perpetuating prejudice if you are not going to let people experience other cultures”, but that wasn’t the request. White reviewers could still see the show. And again, without the specificity of this situation this argument is a shell. The Canadian Indigenous people are the original people of Canada, that their cultures are Other is exactly part of the trauma.

Catherine also says that “Bonnell could end up excluding other minorities, even unintentionally”, which is also not the point.

I dunno guys, the article makes me feel sad.

FKH: Yes, that part was the worst. It’s not being homophobic or classist for Bonnell to say she’d prefer no white reviewers – working class critics who are non-white and LGBT+ critics who are non-white would clearly be welcome. That Bonnell is Two Spirit herself makes it even more intellectually dishonest to suggest that’s what this is propping up and allowing to come to pass. For Shoard to say “It’s not like everyone who is in a particular profession who doesn’t look exactly like you is some sort of very privileged enemy” is wilfully misunderstanding what white supremacy is and how it works, and is really embarrassing to read.

I also think it’s quite disingenuous to suggest, as the article does, that critics can go softer on shows or not engage with the same rigour because of a fear of being seen as un-PC, or revealing that they don’t understand something. This is the kind of dog-whistling we see quite often about works of art made by non-white people. I don’t think that’s what Akbar means to suggest, but it’s in the same vein. Just because you fully understand and have experience of a racial context of a play because you share some of it, perhaps, doesn’t mean that you won’t be thorough in your analysis of whether it did what it set out to do or not.

NO: That’s very true. It bothers me that people might read the article and use it to inform their perspective on criticism. One of the few things I agreed with was Lanre pointing out how there needs to be more critics of colour. That’s solid.

Is there something from your experiences as a maker or a critic or both that has made you question who should be allowed to review a show? I don’t think I’ve come across that other than with Fairview, where people were saying that white people shouldn’t review it. If that request had come from the production, in the same way that it requested a spoiler embargo, I don’t know what would have happened. I wouldn’t have minded. It makes sense in the context of the play. There are so many other plays for white people to review.

BK: There are certainly times where I’ve questioned whether I’m the best person to review a show. For instance, I’ve been to cover shows which are explicitly about Blackness and the experience of racial discrimination which I haven’t enjoyed very much, or thought were lacking in certain elements of craft and dramaturgy, but which have been very well received by audiences. In these cases, I’ve had to pause and consider the fact that I’m light-skinned and sometimes white-passing, and so enjoy its concomitant privileges – so for work whose power lies in speaking to lived experience, my reaction might be one of empathy and solidarity rather than identification, feeling for rather than feeling with. I also have to contend with the fact (and here’s where the question becomes even more sticky) that my tastes and practice as a maker have been very much informed and influenced by a tradition of the white avant-garde. It means I have personal biases which favour aesthetic strategies which are inextricable from whiteness. What strategies (obliqueness, abstraction, a focus on ‘pure’ form and aesthetics) are wrapped up with privilege? I can be aware of these biases, but I also must recognise that I will always have them, and this means that I’m better placed to review some things than others.

NM: One point that I found interesting was a quote retweet from my post:

“Listen. And then act! Who keeps gate over the review allocations/invitations at theatres? Where do they look?” – I guess as someone who’s not a critic, (and who only really knows Frey and how he’s talked about the allocations), it might be an interesting point to raise for those outside of the critic circle: who is allocating press tickets, and is this something that needs to be opened up about more?

A couple of years ago I was head of content for a conference where, for the first time, we experimented with ‘closed room panels’, where only audiences who self-identified as a person of colour could enter. We found it was liberating in that questions about race weren’t addressed at us from white people, and we could give answers that didn’t centre whiteness / contain language that was apologetic for not ‘including’ whiteness. We also found it hard in that because it relied on self-identifying yourself, when white people accidentally entered the panel looking for another, we couldn’t question their presence (and one person who organised the panel, who was white-passing, did not feel like they could justify being in the room). It lead to some knotty conversations (and we got called separationist /reverse racist by many a white person), but I do stand by the point that sometimes spaces have to be made specifically for us, by us, because not everything is (or should be) for everyone. Bonnell has every right to curate (to as much a degree as she can) how her play is talked about online, and what audiences she will reach because of it.

I seek out reviewers of colour when I look at theatre reviews, not because I believe they’ll share my opinions, but because I’m no longer interested in keeping a white perspective as ‘central’ to understanding or thinking about theatre. I guess what I’m trying to say is that what the Guardian is ultimately saying is that Bonnell shouldn’t just ask critics of colour because ‘all PoC are the same’, that we’re a hivemind who share identical values and thoughts, when some of the most interesting conversations I’ve had recently have been about Fairview and White Pearl: just because a reviewer is BAME, that doesn’t mean they can talk with authority or lived experience about blackness, or Asianness, (as if these are one identity too!) And when a show centres East Asian anti-blackness, who ‘should’ review it then? There’s no one answer, because it’s not about that? I feel like what we’re trying to say is that by legitimising their argument with ‘well what about xyz scenario’, what we’re really criticising is the white fragility over not being invited?

And I mean yeah, they really used ‘inverted racism’ because they knew they couldn’t say ‘reverse racism’ without ringing an alarm bell.

NO: It really does highlight a disconnect between high-profile criticism and what’s happening ‘on the ground’ in theatre circles. That’s what was odd to me about the whole article. If it was about Yolanda Bonnell and her show bug, then it did a poor job of engaging with its context and its content: the show is specifically about intergenerational trauma and Indigenous women, which says a lot about why she wanted to silence white, predominantly male voices. Plus the Guardian was never going to review the actual show, so the article simply using her situation as a case study for wider illogical riffs is so damaging.

In my sleuthing I found a really interesting review of the show in question, bug, which was a conversation between a Cree university professor who studies Indigenous performance, and a white critic who bought a ticket as an audience member. Not only did Yolanda enable this interesting form of critical engagement with her work, she also enabled a platform for an expert to explain specificities of Indigenous art/ceremony and performance to a white critic, and by extension to all the readers (myself included!). This wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t disrupted the critical landscape in the way she did. It’s so important that we don’t just allow illogical, uninformed musings to pass as fact or as critically engaged opinion – the article was so disappointing, and very revealing, unfortunately.

These are extracts from her statement: “There is an aspect to cultural work – or, in our case, artistic ceremony – which does not align with current colonial reviewing practices. In order to encourage a deeper discussion of the work, we are inviting critiques or thoughts from IBPOC [Indigenous, Black and People of Colour] folks only… There is a specific lens that white settlers view cultural work through and, at this time, we’re just not interested in bolstering that view, but rather the thoughts and views of fellow marginalized voices and in particular Indigenous women.” I wish that the Guardian critics had shown that they were willing to engage in deeper discussion.

Participant Bios

Nemo Martin (they/them) is a playwright and stage manager, also doing a PhD on positive representation of race & transgender identity (mostly looking at the language we use to talk about minority groups in literature vs. what white cis people use).

Frey Kwa Hawking (he/him), is a reviewer for Exeunt and The Stage and also a dramaturg.

Jimmy Dougan (they /them), is a director from Birmingham.

Ben Kulvichit (he/him), is a performance maker and reviewer for the Stage and Exeunt (plus national reviews editor for the latter).

Naomi Obeng (she/her) writes plays and criticism (Exeunt, The Stage), and is co-editor of Noises Off at NSDF.

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