Award-winning playwright Yolanda Bonnell, who defines herself as a Queer, 2-Spirit Ojibwe/South Asian artist, recently banned critics who are not Indigenous, Black or People of Color (IBPOC) from reviewing the production of her play, “bug.” I read reports online about Ms. Bonnell’s bold, public declaration, which launched a conversation, both inside and outside of the world of the arts, about the uneasy relationship between IBPOC artists and white critics, and I wanted to share the story with the readers of Arts & Culture Connections..
Written by Ms. Bonnell, who is from Fort William First Nation in Thunder Bay, Ontario, the play portrays the struggle of an Indigenous girl to heal from both trauma and addiction. It was co-presented by her Manidoons Collective, Native Earth Performing Arts and Theatre Passe Muraille (Theater Beyond Walls) and had a three-week run at the Toronto-based theater known for its efforts to create space for diverse artists, audience members and their stories.
“We all have lenses that we see the world through, and it directly correlates to our life experience. Unless you’re an Indigenous woman you don’t know what it’s like to be an Indigenous woman. Unless you’re a two-spirit individual or a trans or non-binary you don’t know what that experience is like. So, if somebody is writing a story about that, the lens that you’re viewing it through, it’s directly going to affect how you view that story, or how you write about it. There are going to be aspects that you don’t understand.”
On the other hand, she told Q’s host Tom Power, “We, as people of color, understand whiteness to its core because we’ve grown up with it, especially people who’ve grown up here in Canada. My friend, a wonderful Indigenous playwright from the west coast, Kim Senklip Harvey, says she has her ‘ Ph.D. in whiteness’ and I feel very much similar.”
Within hours of the airing of the CBC interview, Ms. Bonnell was subjected to a flood of threats and attacks on social media. She was called a racist, a bigot, a whore, and other slurs used to verbally abuse women. She also was accused of banning the critics to boost ticket sales.
However, in her official statement about the ban of white critics, which Ms. Bonnell posted on the website Vice.com, she wrote that her decision was rooted in her desire to create a safe space for artists of color. “I do a lot of work in terms of decolonizing theatre… and for me this was one of those steps — taking away the colonial lens…Our communities are strong and we have more power than colonial institutions would lead us to believe.”
The Toronto Star newspaper’s theatre critic Karen Fricker decided to write an article about Ms. Bonnell’s decision and use it as an opportunity to argue on behalf of “mainstream critics.” She wrote: “Those reviews serve a number of functions including critical evaluation, historical record and support for future funding applications and, more immediately, they help get word out that the shows are happening.”
However, Ms. Bonnell told Ms. Fricker in an interview the play is an “artistic ceremony” that “does not align with colonial reviewing practices.” The playwright was quoted in the article as saying: “For me, the idea of critiquing an act that is ceremonial feels very wrong” when the critic doesn’t have similar experiences of marginalization as experienced by IBPOCs.
At the same time, Ms. Bonnell publicly extended an invitation to non-Indigenous people to attend the production “to act as witnesses.” She said: “It’s up to them to carry that story and spread it to other people, to use their platform and privilege to explain what the effects of colonialism are….I am still arguing with racists every day and that fact that I still have to have these conversations means that still people don’t understand those effects.”
Of the experience and the firestorm her pronouncement has created, Ms. Bonnell said: Having “people telling me I’m brave and that they’ve wanted to do the same thing for a long time makes a lot of the backlash worth it.”
I have read many reviews by critics working for major daily publications in which they discussed a production they not only didn’t understand, but also misinterpreted it to their readers. The saddest part is these reviews were presented with the authority and cachet of the publication’s reputation, despite being off base.
At the same time, we must ask, is it possible for these critics to expand their cultural lens and, if so, how do they develop those muscles? Would I feel the same way if the mainstream media wrote a glowing review, or do I reserve my critique for only negative commentaries?
Ms. Bonnell’s decision offers all of us working in cultural institutions and arts organizations a lot to think and dialogue about. Ultimately, I do believe the function of critical analysis, when done from an informed space (a concerted effort to put the work in its proper historical or social context), is important but not essential; especially when it comes to my own decision about whether to see a production or an exhibition. At the same time, I believe all artists have the right to claim their space; to own their work and protect it from what can be detrimental “colonial reviewing practices.”
What do you think? I look forward to you sharing your thoughts below.