January 16, 2022—When my career propelled me to leap from the world of dance to The Public Theater, the powerful impact and influence of reviews by critics became even more clear to me. Not only do reviews help shape the public’s perception of a theatrical production, they also can determine its future.
For the most part, the critics for numerous media organizations are both male and white. My experience has been that they often misunderstand the cultural nuances of works created by artists of color. Those instances made me appreciate even more the dynamic reviews written by Linda Armstrong, who reports for The Amsterdam News and Harlem News. Linda, along with Audrey Bernard of the New York Beacon, and Jeanne Parnell of WHCR Radio, have been trailblazers in a space that still remains predominantly white.
However, that landscape is changing, thanks to the efforts of cultural critic Jose Solís, who has been covering theater, film and arts for more than 20 years for several publications, including the New York Times, American Theatre, Dramatics, and Backstage.
Recognizing the very low numbers of theater critics of color, and inspired by the movements for social and racial justice in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, Jose decided that he had to do something to close the gap. Consequently, he took time during the pandemic-generated shutdown to develop the curriculum for the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) Critics Lab.
Jose promoted the program on Twitter and received more than 100 applicants. A few months later, he was able to launch his effort to mentor and teach future critics with the assistance of a GoFundMe campaign.
The Kennedy Center of the Performing Arts reached out to Jose after learning about the program and offered funding for the following year. The Kennedy Center’s support also is behind the launch of the current cohort of participants in the BIPOC Critics Lab, which began on January 9, 2022.
The 10-week program seeks to nurture the unique voices of future critics through a multimedia lens—written essays, traditional reviews, as well as podcasting, audiovisual and social media platforms. Jose also has recruited theater partners who have agreed to pay program participants for whatever materials they create at the end of the program on behalf of those theaters.
After reading the article about the program in American Theatre Magazine, and on the blog, I Care if You Listen, what I admire most about what Jose has done is that he saw the need and then took action to make it a reality. He said he had to push past his fears and insecurities about becoming a teacher and mentor to pursue this dream, for which he had been collecting notes for years. Ultimately, Jose constructed the program from the ground up—developing the curriculum; utilizing social media to recruit participants, and using crowdfunding to finance its initial launch.
Future critics are constantly reminded that the work of a critic is not to pass judgment and make recommendations, but rather to be the mediator between the art and the audience. Critics exist to open up dialogue, not to end it. and with the artforms they’re covering, they must first honor their individual voices.
I believe fostering future generations of critics with this training and these values will allow for more creative expression, experimentation, and the emergence of new and diverse voices in all aspects of culture and the arts.
As always, I would like to know what you think. I invite you to share your thoughts and comments about the BIPOC Critics Lab program and its potential contributions to the field of cultural criticism.