PART OF CHICAGO THEATRE WEEK 2018
“I’ve always left “Ragtime” infused with renewed optimism…This time I felt quite sad. That’s a perfectly legitimate thing to wish might happen to an audience in the theater, and Bowling is a very capable and often-compelling director of musicals; I am just not convinced it is fair to this piece.”
Gwen stopped on that line in Chris Jones’ review of Ragtime at the Marriott. She considered what the context of that criticism really was – Jones’ disappointment that a musical that typically left him hopeful was given a less optimistic makeover.
Ragtime, a musical written by two white composers about racial conflict around the turn of the 20th century, was having a bit of a renaissance. Just in the past year, the Marriott production had been preceded by one at Northwestern University, and a well-recieved chamber edition from Griffin Theatre in the summer. Gwen was perceptive enough to sense why a musical about the struggles of immigrants and African Americans to fit into American society was now seen as prescient.
Still, she returned to that line in Jones’ review: I’ve always left “Ragtime” infused with renewed optimism…this time I felt quite sad…I am just not convinced it is fair to this piece.
“Well, maybe that’s what Bowling was going for,” Gwen sneered.
“What was that?” Eleanor said, her head askance. “Something about bowling?”
“No, Nick Bowling.” Gwen held out her laptop. “The director of Ragtime at the Marriott. Chris Jones didn’t like it because it wasn’t happy at the end.”
“Well, doesn’t the lead character die at the end?” Eleanor wondered, taking the laptop to read.
“As a martyr,” Gwen said. “You know, it’s supposed to end all happily with the new family unit intact. From what I can tell, it’s a little more depressing in this version.”
Eleanor scanned over the critique. Her brow furrowed.
“Yeah, it’s basically, ‘Why are they making me sad when this musical is supposed to be happy?'”
“In so many words,” Gwen said. “It seems fair if Nick Bowling wants to imply – rare as this thought might be – that maybe the racial intolerance in the musical didn’t go away by 1910.”
“Critics, man,” Eleanor said, handing the laptop back.
“Chris Jones, man,” Gwen clarified. She grinned. “He has a lot to stand for, now that he’s the only major critic in Chicago.”
“Oh, right, Hedy got fired,” Eleanor said, with a chuckle.
“‘Major’ being an inelegant word,” Gwen clarified. “There are other critics that matter. ‘Major,’ in that he has the ear of all the retired women who frequent the Goodman and Steppenwolf.”
“Right,” Eleanor agreed.
“Hedy wasn’t technically fired,” Gwen responded. “She was let go. They dissolved the critic position at the Sun-Times. Which I disagree with, they should have hired someone else.”
Gwen stretched out further on the couch, her arms falling behind her head. “Should have hired me,” she added, posing seductively.
The two laughed. After a moment, Eleanor picked up the laptop again.
“The motivation, no doubt, was to make the point that bigotry hardly was vanquished at the end of the ‘Ragtime’ era,” the review intoned. “But it’s an example of a nervous director overreaching and not trusting the material.”
“Although I’m fairly certain that Hedy’s infamous review of Pass Over from last year had something to do with her getting fired,” Gwen mused. “People gave her nothing but hell for that.”
“Mm-hm.” Eleanor continued to read: “the typically joyous first entrance of the African-American cast-members, reflecting Colehouse’s initial belief in the country of his birth, lacked the usual pizazz.”
“Did you read the review?” Gwen asked Eleanor. “The one of Pass Over?”
“You mentioned it,” Eleanor said. “I couldn’t go see it, so I wasn’t as interested.”
“Sure,” Gwen said. She lay on the couch, gazing up. “It was a moment of reckoning for the theatre community, but I don’t know how it affected the world beyond that.”
“I heard you mention it,” Eleanor repeated. “I saw a couple of rebuttals posted to Facebook. I got the general gist – that she was racist and hated the show.”
“Sort of,” Gwen said. “That’s what the argument against her eventually became. What really bothered people was how she got off topic – ”
Gwen sat up, and reached out for the laptop. “Let me pull it up.”
“Keep the ‘Ragtime’ tab open, I’m still reading,” Eleanor said.
Gwen found the review, and scanned the page. “It’s right here,” she said. Eleanor moved to sit beside Gwen on the couch. “This paragraph. She goes on about how police killing black people is a myth.”
“‘Much of the lion’s share of the violence is perpetrated within the community itself,’ oof.” Eleanor gritted her teeth. “That’s pretty overt.”
“Then she refers to the cop character ––”
“‘Clearly intended to indict all white cops,'” Eleanor read.
“I know, right?”
“That’s some ‘Blue Lives Matter’ nonsense.”
“There are subtle issues all through the review,” Gwen said. “The way she compliments Ryan Hallahan for his previous work but only discusses the two black actors for what they do in this show. Her comment about the Rogers and Hammerstein songs that play ironically during the preshow, where she calls out the director for not realizing that those musicals were ‘about the pain of prejudice.'”
“That’s a weird comment.”
“To be fair, they were,” Gwen admitted. “But the songs in the preshow were ‘Oh, What A Beautiful Morning,’ not ‘You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught.’ She’s drawing a false equivalency.”
“It’s like she’s not even talking about the show half the time,” Eleanor said. “She’s mostly talking about the worldview behind the show.”
“Maybe that’s why people got angry about it.”
“I suppose,” Gwen said. She stood up and paced around the room.
“Well, she’s gone,” Eleanor said. “That’s for the best.”
Gwen said nothing. She was thinking about what Eleanor had said. She’s mostly talking about the worldview behind the show.
“It’s not that she talks about topics other than the play,” Gwen said. “All good critics do that, putting the play in a context. The problem is that she uses that contextualizing to discredit the play’s message.”
“What do you mean?” Eleanor asked.
“When you read the review on a surface level, taking away the ‘Hedy is a racist’ angle,” Gwen began.
Eleanor shot her a look, so Gwen clarified: “Which you shouldn’t ignore, but for the sake of argument…”
“What does she say about the play?” Gwen traced the review with a finger. “She understands the concept, rewriting Waiting For Godot with two black men on a street corner. She even concedes that it’s not a forced equivalency.”
“Well, yeah,” Eleanor said. “Street corners are probably where she imagines all the black men hang out.”
Gwen continued. “The thing that stood out to me – and granted, I read this review right when it came out, before the theatre community descended on it – was the final paragraph.”
Their eyes both careened down the page. Just above the photo of Jon Michael Hill and Ryan Hallahan were two brief sentences: “As it often does, Steppenwolf tries to send a message with this play. Instead, it ends up clubbing its audience over the head in a way that also makes its applause feel self-congratulatory.”
“I find it hard to fully disagree with that,” Gwen admitted. “Consider it as criticism. She’s arguing that the message is driven home so overtly in the play’s final ten minutes that it doesn’t match the theatrical style up to that point. That Steppenwolf’s largely white, largely older audience would clap after an ending like that does feel at odds with the intended message about systemic oppression.”
“Well, would you rather have them not clap?” Eleanor asked. “The audience being what they are, they’re not going to be rocked to their core by the play in the way the writer probably hopes they will be. Or, if they were, they’re still going to clap for it.”
“Not untrue,” Gwen said. “I suppose what I’m saying is that a lot of people dislike this review because it misunderstands the play and what it’s trying to say. As if Hedy Weiss doesn’t understand or believe that black people are angry about being oppressed.”
“So you’re saying the problem is that Hedy does understand what the play is about…”
“…but implies that we shouldn’t care,” Gwen finished. “That it’s all a myth. It’s the notion that even if the play perfectly communicated its message, that message shouldn’t be discussed.”
“Hm.” Eleanor said. “Or, counterpoint,” she added, with a look to Gwen. “She’s racist.”
Gwen rolled her eyes. “I suppose that’s a brief way to say what I’m trying to. That it’s her dismissal of the subject matter, not the negativity of her writing, that bothered people.”
“I mean, sure,” Eleanor said. “Maybe it led to more people seeing it anyway. All news is good news, that kind of argument.”
“I was planning to see it before,” Gwen said, “but the review certainly meant I had to.”
“You saw it?”
“Yeah. Dania and I both went.”
Eleanor’s eyes widened. “Dania went with you?”
“We asked if you were free and you said no!”
“Yeah, but I didn’t know you then went to it!” Eleanor said.
“I’m not annoyed, I’m just surprised Dania went.” Eleanor leaned back into the couch again. “How was it?”
“It was alright. Probably needs one or two more drafts to iron out the kinks. Dania thought it was pretty funny – except for the obvious parts.”
Gwen walked into the next room. Eleanor watched her leave, and then caught sight of the open laptop. She closed out the tab with Hedy’s review, and returned to Chris Jones’ thoughts on Ragtime.
“The show is not suggesting anything is solved,” Jones wrote of the hopeful finale. “It is merely proffering the only viable solution, then and now. And had the bookwriter, Terrence McNally, and the songwriters, Flaherty and Ahrens, wanted ‘The Wheels of a Dream’ to be overwhelmed by the Willie Conklin nightmare, a nightmare we all well know we still are living, they would have put him in the number.”
When Eleanor reached Jones’ complaint about the production’s “enormous difficulty embracing the show’s inherent optimism,” she closed the laptop.
Image Credit: American Theatre