Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Is the Tribune's Theater Critic Chris Jones a Racist?

For years I've wondered If Chris Jones is racist.

Here's some backstory. I'm a Korean-American actor who recently moved from Chicago to LA. From 2002 to 2015, I transitioned from improv classes to storefront theater to my Equity card. Over time, I began to wonder if the Chicago Tribune's main theater critic Chris Jones was a racist. I asked several members of the theater community there. We hemmed and hawed, but no one wanted to speak up. Plus, it's a difficult and painful survey -- to go back and calculate the percentage of white plays which get 3.5-4 star reviews vs plays of color which get 3.5-4 star reviews. I started and then stopped because the initial data hurt my heart.

But now I live in LA. And again, I've watched my Asian-American colleagues suffer yet another poor review. There are ripples to prejudiced reviews. The box office receipts are lower, the Asian immigrant community wags its fingers at its youth for pursuing art, theaters across town decide to do another "safe" play, and the whole country just plain loses when people don't confront their racism.

Here's my letter to the Editor of the Tribune which the paper chose to ignore. Let's ask the question: Is Mr Jones racist?

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To the Chicago Tribune:

Chris Jones once again gave an Asian play 2.5 stars. Mr. Jones who grew up in a predominantly white society often gives glowing 3.5-4 star reviews to plays centered around white people talking to white people. This is especially true of white plays done by the storefront scene.

However, Mr. Jones does not extend this generosity toward Asian plays. In fact, his reviews are usually out of step with the overall tone of the other reviewers. Timeline's Chimerica is the latest to fall victim to his racist POV. Other excellent productions which were ignominiously subjected to his racist perspective include The White Snake (of which I was in the cast), Blood and Gifts, Yellowface, Kafka on the Shore and Jungle Book. Yes, he gave Chinglish 4 stars, but that play happened to be Broadway material.

The white theatrical community has benefited greatly from his support of their work and their efforts. A theater critic is part of the industry. They guide and shepherd audience members through the vast array of offerings. But the critic also needs to be mindful of the composition of audiences. Championing white theater is wonderful, but routinely tearing down Asian-American theatrical in-roads is short-sighted and shameful.

Hollywood is coming under fire for its racist practices because it is filled with unconscious racists. These are white people with media power who were raised when the throat of Culture was gripped by the white hegemony. But we now live in a post-Obama America. Power and color are no longer synonymous. Legitimacy and race are no longer tied together by a white rope. Whitewashing on screen is no longer tolerated, and a critic’s blatant derision of yellow faces on stage is vile.

Kafka on the Shore may not have been a perfect production, but it was a cataclysmic event for me. I’d never seen East Asian faces portraying an East Asian story. But tepid reviews kept patrons away, especially traditional Asian immigrants who care very much what the White Man thinks.

It would behoove Chicago's theater scene to examine its deep-seated prejudices. Hedy Weiss was called out for her blatantly racist review of Invasion!. I've stood by long enough while Chris Jones repeatedly writes of his distaste for plays composed of Asian faces. Chicago deserves critics more discerning than that, and Asian-American theatrical professionals deserve more dignified treatment than that.