It all sounded like a straight-forward review when The New York Times critic at large Maya Phillips reviewed a play by Aleshea Harris currently running at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the story “What to Send Up When It Goes Down.” But that was about all that was normal as a note on the play’s website read: “The play was created for a Black audience but all are welcome. The intention of the play is to create a space for as many Black-identifying audience members as possible.”
In practice, things were less racially benign: Non-black people were asked to leave the show and go into the lobby during the last few minutes of the play and Phillips, who is black, absolutely loved it.
The Times has previously covered approvingly a few instances of New York City venues excluding whites from black-oriented shows and nightclub evenings. But this may be the first time a Times staffer openly reveled in the de facto discrimination and racial exclusion -- the sense that some other race of people doesn’t truly belong there (click “expand”):
We didn’t know what to do about this piece.
Whether I, a Black critic, should review Aleshea Harris’s breathtaking “What to Send Up When It Goes Down,” even though my former colleague Ben Brantley, a white critic, already reviewed and raved about the show’s initial run in 2018. Whether I should be in conversation with a white critic or another Black critic.
This is the piece I came up with: I’m reporting on a moment in time when I, a Black critic and a Black woman in America, felt the safest and most embraced by my Blackness in a theater.
On a gloomy Friday evening, I went to BAM Fisher for the play, being presented by the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Playwrights Horizons in association with the Movement Theater Company. I headed to the downstairs lobby, which featured portraits of Black men and women killed by the police. The room was full of Black people.
Then a series of skits charts all the horrific ways Black people are stereotyped and generally misrepresented in art and in real life. There are biting parodies of troubling Black tropes in entertainment, like the supplicant servant figures in “Driving Miss Daisy” and “The Help.”…
Phillips literally admitted to playing race police: “Some part of me was quietly policing the white people in the theater -- how they responded to certain scenes and questions, if and when they laughed at certain jokes, if they seemed to hold themselves accountable, if they were taking up too much space.”
Are we really doing “blacks-only” spaces in 2021?
Think that was galaxy-brain dumb? Incredibly, things got worse and even more racist:
As a critic and a reporter, part of what I do is read the room -- how and why audiences react to the happenings onstage, and what that says about the work. But here, I didn’t want to care. In the show’s final minutes, non-Black audience members were invited to leave the theater and gather in the lobby. When I recounted this to a friend afterward, she asked what the white audiences saw, if anything, but I don’t know and -- I know this is shameful to admit -- I don’t care.
The last few minutes are apparently the equivalent of the Eleusinian Mysteries of Ancient Greece, but more obnoxious because anyone who isn't black doesn't deserve to know (or something): “Affirmations, exclamations of joy, moments of commemoration: I’ll skip the particulars of those last few holy minutes that were exclusive to the Black audience[.]”
Approving of special race-based wisdom imparted to blacks alone, from the same newspaper that notoriously finds racism in everything Republicans say or do.
But at BAM Fisher on that Friday night, I believed in a song of community, of strength and beauty and Black life despite whatever funereal tune is forced upon the lives of Black Americans. Of course I believe in theater for everyone, but I also believe in theater for Black people, and Black people alone.
Reverse the races, and this would of course never appear in print and would get the critic in a world of trouble at the woke Times.
As if critic Ben Brantley’s 2018 commendation wasn’t craven enough: “I am not properly part of the collective being addressed, celebrated, stirred and consoled here. I am a white man.”