Theatre critics need to think harder about whether their own ethnicity and relative privilege means they are the right people to write about certain topics, new guidelines drawn up by the union Equity argue.
It has published recommendations for theatre critics when they write about race, urging them to guard against unconscious bias and also consciously consider the relevance of race or ethnicity in their reviews.
The union said the guidance came from “a long, problematic history of Equity members receiving criticism involving their race, ethnicity or skin colour with no objective, evidential reason”.
The Sunday Times last June apologised after a listing previewed a TV broadcast of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Macbeth as “less garishly diverse in casting than last Sunday’s Romeo and Juliet”.
In 2018 the RSC accused the theatre critic Quentin Letts, then writing for the Daily Mail, of “a blatantly racist attitude” for suggesting an actor in one of its productions was only cast because he is black.
The Stage newspaper this week published a special feature on race and theatre criticism. One of its guest editors was actor Emmanuel Kojo, who wrote of his experience playing Jud Fry in Oklahoma! at Chichester festival theatre in 2019. One part of a review in the Stage, headlined ‘Problematic undercurrents’, read: “The production feels unresponsive to the racial tension its apparently colour-blind casting evokes. Stereotypes of black masculinity are ignited without being interrogated.”
Kojo considered the review a racist one, and wrote: “I don’t mind being criticised for my craft or performance – I welcome it. But when it is about something I have no control over and cannot change, like the colour of my skin, then that is something I justly get angry over.”
The small number of people who are professional theatre critics in the UK have long been under scrutiny. Nicholas Hytner, when director of the National Theatre in 2007, hit the headlines when he suggested that plays directed by women suffered misogynistic treatment from “dead white men” in the critics’ chairs.
Equity, which represents 47,000 actors, performers and stage crew, said it was making its recommendations in part to “encourage the growth of a more culturally diverse body of critics”.
The union’s equality and diversity officer, Ian Manborde, said the guidance had been “devised by a diverse collective of critics with the aim of generating informed, collaborative discussion across critic communities”.
The guidance urges critics to keep in mind that “true objectivity does not exist, so their reviews will always be influenced by their own lived experience”.
They should consider their own potential for bias and relative privilege when evaluating a production, and also consider whether they are best positioned to interpret a story. Writers are also urged to remember that everyone is equal and should not be treated as “strange” or “othered”, and approach unfamiliar themes, contexts and stories with curiosity and openness.