Monday, June 4, 2007

Is a puzzlement

Do you read the theatre reviews in The New Yorker? If so, you already know that Hilton Als has a habit of saying bizarre things. Sometimes I think he's trying to beat his own record for least relevant intro paragraph ever. (Sorry -- once I got started looking for examples, it was hard to stop.) Other times I just wonder what he's talking about, and why nobody in the office asked him that before they printed his piece. A few weeks back, when I was busy bagging my mattress and scrubbing my baseboards and otherwise dealing with my suspected bedbug infestation, he published a column that I've been puzzling over ever since. So even though it's old news (insofar as it was ever news), I'd like to discuss it now.

In the May 21 issue of The New Yorker, Als reviewed two recently opened Broadway shows, 110 in the Shade and Radio Golf, and for a change his intro paragraph actually referred directly to the subject at hand, namely Audra McDonald. He gets off to a good enough start, describing her as "a performer so freakishly gifted that you wonder how she does it." No argument there. And I can't take issue with anything he says about the show, since I haven't seen it. What struck me as odd was his devoting the final paragraph on this topic to a discussion of Audra as a television actress. "For those audience members who have seen McDonald only in her sporadic television appearances -- on The Bedford Diaries or Law & Order: Special Victims Unit -- her Lizzie is a revelation." Ah, yes, Audra's talents, so long underused on TV, are finally getting a chance to shine onstage! Is this not a truly bizarre point for a theatre critic to make? And even if it were somehow justifiable to discuss her headlining performance in this show as a departure from her "sporadic television work," I can't help recalling that much of her small-screen exposure has been related to her career in musical theatre: see for example, the 1999 ABC remake of Annie, or her televised concert appearances on PBS. I mean, I got a kick out of seeing her on Law & Order, but I have a hard time believing that anyone in the Roundabout's potential audience would identify Audra McDonald chiefly as "That psychiatrist lady from season 2 of SVU." If those people exist, and if something inspires them to see this show in spite of their total lack of awareness of what's been happening on Broadway in the last 13 years, then, yes, her performance will probably be a revelation. But I hardly think that benighted point of view should be adopted by a professional critic.

Is it possible that Als just doesn't know that Audra has been, you know, onstage before? That she has, in fact, a couple of awards to show for it? "In Mike Nichols's 2001 TV-movie version of Margaret Edson's play Wit," he continues, still apropos of nothing, really, "McDonald struck me as a serviceable actress, but not a standout. Watching her in this production of 100 in the Shade, which beautifully ignores race and casts black and white performers alike in key roles... I was reminded of how underused -- or poorly used -- actresses like McDonald continue to be onscreen, where they would reach larger audiences. If movies were as color-blind as they should be, McDonald, with her incredible skill, soul, and purpose, could easily become her generation's Meryl Streep."

It always irks me when a critic writes about a star as though he had just discovered her -- as though only he were discerning enough to see the star's true potential, but he's generously letting us in on the secret -- when in fact the star in question is well-established and widely revered already. And under normal circumstances I'd probably go on and on about just that. But it's just the beginning of my issues with this particular sample of Als's art. In the paragraph I just quoted, I'm not sure whether he's saying Audra has improved since 2001, or that she was misdirected or miscast in Wit, or what -- there seems to be a sentence missing that states his point in mentioning Wit (assuming there is one). As for the comparison to Meryl Streep -- well, I don't know what effect Als was going for here (could anyone ever really know?), but it sounds as though he's lamenting the fact that Audra's talents are being frittered away on the stage, when she could have a major motion picture career, if only she were white, or cast in roles typically given to white actresses. As though her multiple Tonys, etc., are really just consolation prizes, stand-ins for the Academy Awards she ought to be winning. An argument that might be convincing, or at least defensible, were it not for the fact that Audra is (as noted earlier in this review) a pretty darn good singer. Her talents therefore lend themselves to a career path slightly different than Streep's, and (with all due respect to Meryl) I thank God for that. I doubt that it's primarily racism that keeps Audra working in the theatre, and only "sporadically" on TV and in the movies, but even if that were the case, I'd be awfully sorry to see her turn into her generation's Meryl Streep. I much prefer her as her generation's Audra McDonald.

That's not the end of the madness, I'm afraid. Als -- having just finished recording his "melancholy" impressions of the racist motion-picture industry -- moves on to Radio Golf by declaring, "It's OK if you don't like August Wilson's work. Perfectly all right." The one thing that irks me more than critics who pretend they're discovering an already much-loved performer is critics who turn condescending as soon as they are asked to discuss the work of August Wilson. When it comes from white critics, it feels distinctly like intellectual racism, of the sort that Wilson's plays are constructed to defeat (at least in my experience). The fact that Als is black makes it more complicated; he's not dismissing Wilson simply because he's a black man writing about ordinary black people as though their lives were worthy of literature, but rather because he's a fellow black man writing about ordinary black people in the wrong way. That doesn't make me feel much better about this critical approach; I still think it's a failure to judge Wilson's work on its merits, or to acknowledge that it has merits at all. I would never ask a critic to like any playwright just because everyone else seems to, and I'm happy to entertain any critic's carefully reasoned argument, however against-the-grain it might go. But attending a play with a chip on your shoulder, and then granting your readers permission to join you in disliking the playwright, is another matter altogether.

Als has words of comfort for you, if criticizing Wilson makes you "feel like Don Imus"; he encourages you to "Take off those political-correctness-tinted glasses," which will presumably give you a share in his courage, the courage that allows him to go against public opinion and dismiss Radio Golf as "a formulaic work that illustrates why Wilson was not, in the end, a great artist." Ah, but perhaps, if he'd been white, he could have been his generation's Eugene O'Neill. Why, he might even have had a career in the movies!

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