There’s no question that the arts criticism world is primarily a white world, with few BIPOC (Black, Indiginous and people of color) voices in the mix. Frustrated by that fact, Jose Solís, co-founder and co-host of the Token Theatre Friends podcast, decided to take matters into his own hands by creating the BIPOC Critics Lab, meeting for 10 weeks via Zoom with eight future critics from around the country. His efforts attracted the attention of the Kennedy Center, which invited him to partner on the next step for the program. As Solís prepares for that Nov. 15 event, Quill asked him to share his thoughts on the need for greater diversity and inclusion in arts criticism, what was learned from the lab and how that might happen.
Being a BIPOC critic in a predominantly white industry isn’t easy. Arts journalism, like everything else in America, is a scale model of the larger system which has perpetuated white supremacy for centuries. For years, tired of seeing a handful of people like me scrambling to be accepted by a community that rarely sees past its demographic makeup, I tried to collaborate with colleagues and investors in creating a workshop to train BIPOC critics.
I could see that elusive critic in my mind’s eye. They did not have the same academic preparation or socio-economic background as the staff critics in newspapers and magazines. They were not white, because they didn’t know BIPOC could pursue criticism. And they wanted to step outside the box, challenge norms and change what for so long we have taken as the universal point of view.
I was never able to get my project off the ground until I decided to do it on my own. During the months when protesters took to the streets to demand an end to police brutality and the murders of Black men and women, I studied, researched, developed and eventually implemented what I named the BIPOC Critics Lab.
About two months into the pilot version of the Lab, which I held from my apartment in South Brooklyn, I was approached by the Kennedy Center offering to host the next installment. I will meet with the new cohort on Nov. 15, and for the next three months, or so, we will conduct new research to establish the methods that work for us.
I owe my eternal gratitude to Rosa, Schehe, Stephanie, Gabe, Toussaint, Kathlynn, Angela and Alexi, the First Avengers, and adventurous mad scientists, who ventured with me into the unknown and enlightened me with their grace, sense of humor and passion.
These are the primary takeaways from seven experiments we conducted:
- The power of mentorship is invaluable. Showing that you respect someone and want to hear what they have to say can alter the way they move in the world. Offering a helping hand, not out of charity, but because it’s the right thing to do, can infuse a young journalist with confidence and determination. Mentorship should not come from a place of superiority, but rather from sharing one’s experience. Putting myself at the service of the cohort, made me aware of the importance of a network of colleagues with whom to discuss new interests and challenge our perceptions on things we are familiar with.
- We must constantly reinvent criticism. If the arts we cover keep evolving, why has criticism remained essentially the same since the 19th century? Why are we still obsessed with the same concepts, the same structures, the same alphabet even (don’t forget the power of emoji as shorthand). Criticism ought to be as malleable as the arts it celebrates. Try a review in verse. Or come up with song lyrics that reflect what a musical made you feel. The form doesn’t need to replicate what inspired it, but spark curiosity and experimentation. It also highlights why criticism, too, is art.
- Critics must expand their vision and acknowledge how the arts complement each other. Film is no better than theatre is no better than sculpture etc. so why use them as measures against each other? Critics should spark the curiosity of their audiences, by revealing how that seemingly inaccessible play in old English influenced the new Beyoncé video, or how immersive performances and video games are related. I asked critics to think of a personal favorite and find inventive ways to pair it with art from another medium. They ended up with essays about politics and sculpture, podcasts about theatre that felt like a TV show. This is another way to engage those who are unfamiliar with the specific field we cover.
- Written criticism can’t be the default. In a fast-paced world, where the public has learned to draw all the information they need from a headline or a rating (let’s use the color of a tomato to place value on an artist’s work!), criticism must meet them where they are. Whether it’s a TikTok, a podcast or a video essay, critics must use technology and create a dialogue where the people are gathering. Written criticism is also ableist and oftentimes elitist, which is why I trained the Lab members to explore audio and video, to find the way they can best convey their message, a medium custom made for their voice.
- Critics must be a part of the ecosystem of the arts they cover. By this, I don’t mean they should be besties with performers, or groomsmen/bridesmaids at their weddings. Instead, I mean that there should be a constant dialogue between the two. Critics can attend rehearsals, learn about the context of a piece, familiarize themselves with the artists and talk to them even when they’re not covering their work. This ought to bring back some humanity into our field: It’s harder to trash a work when we can see the people behind it. I asked the cohort members to have conversations with artists on Twitter, to ask them questions and listen. They were surprised when artists replied and how this shined a new light on them.
- This doesn’t mean that all criticism will be positive. Critics are not publicists or press representatives. When a work provokes a negative reaction in us, it’s our duty to acknowledge that our criticism should not be a condemnation of the failure of a piece, but rather establish why it didn’t work for us, taking into account our worldview, experience and personal taste. After listening to critics in the Lab explain why they didn’t like Shakespeare, we watched the Public Theater’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, a take with modern references, which featured an entirely Black cast. Seeing a production more in tune with their sensibilities, they realized it wasn’t Shakespeare they didn’t like, but how his plays are often put to the service of one specific kind of theatergoer.
- Objectivity is one of the pillars of journalism, but have we really questioned what it means in practical terms? News reporting should be objective since its mission is to reveal and state facts. But criticism is subjective. We experienced something and in lieu of literal objectivity, which would be presenting our audience with the art itself. Along with the objective facts of the work and our research, we deal with our past experiences, our feelings and our thoughts. In the Lab, each critic went through the process of identifying what their objectivity meant and how they would implement it in their work. Rather than coming up with general definitions, they all reached the conclusion that objectivity is personal, that each of our missions is different and that this doesn’t mean they’re right or wrong.
As we move into the next phase of the BIPOC Critics Lab at the Kennedy Center, I hope to discover more about the ways in which critics can establish conversations with artists and even partner to create together while live theater remains closed. As importantly, I hope we can more deeply explore ways to implement what we learn, in an effort to inspire private and public investors to fund outlets in order to create positions that can guarantee BIPOC critics are able to have their voices heard.
Jose Solís is a Honduran culture critic based in NYC. His work appears in The New York Times, Backstage, American Theatre and 3Views, among others. He is the founder and director of the BIPOC Critics Lab.