First Nations Emerging Critic Carissa Lee discusses why culturally informed reviews are crucial for Indigenous performance
During my time at Witness, I’ve learned a lot. One reccurring theme that’s popped up for me is the necessity of research when reviewing shows. We need more people of colour working as critics and, more broadly, everyone should be more informed about the cultures they’re writing about. For me, this is really clear when I see reviews of Indigenous performance.
“Cultural difference” is an acknowledgment of the diversity that exists within different communities. These differences require different navigations of things like language, representation, social mores and the ways stories are told, just to name a few. Cultural difference is often seen as something to avoid, because it’s complicated and often tricky to know how to write about it in ethical ways.
In a previous Witness article,[i] I discussed why it’s important for theatre-makers to be informed about the cultural nuances of their work. The same principle should apply when reviewing. In some instances, it can be of real value for an audience member or reviewer to discuss a show with fresh eyes, having never been exposed to Indigenous productions. But it’s important to remember that we live in a world where there is no such thing as a view without some kind of lens, a larger frame in which it sits. Academic Maryrose Casey refers to this as “framing”.
‘Most early productions by Indigenous artists only received responses that noted the fact that they were produced’
In the 19th century, Indigenous performances were categorised as exclusively race-based, and were usually in the form of corroboree. “Aboriginal theatre” was understood and promoted by Euro-Australians as traditional Aboriginal dance performances.[ii] Corroborees were performed during significant events and they continue now as part of the repertoire of Indigenous performers telling the stories of the respective Aboriginal communities presenting them[iii].
Even then, they had mixed responses. Missionary George Taplin declared that “the dances of the women are very immodest and lewd…I have seen dances which were the most disgusting displays of obscene gesture possible to be imagined, and although I stood in the dark alone, and nobody knew I was there, I felt ashamed to look upon such abominations.” (This, as Parson suggests, sounds as if Taplin was watching a women’s-only ceremony in secret).[iv]
During the 19th century, some performances of corroboree functioned as supporting acts for blackface troupes and received good reviews for their time. In 1883, for example, the Nardoona Minstrels, a “burnt cork” blackface troupe, gave concerts in Mt Barker, and were applauded for their “talkey-talkey n*gger business”[v] It was an early example of the racist back-handed compliments that continue to the present day, although now ignorant comments are a little more subtle, I guess. Though not much.
The assumption that Indigenous performance was a kind of anthropological demonstration continued into the late 1960s and early 1970s, until the emergence of Indigenous theatre companies. Most early productions by Indigenous artists only received responses that noted the fact that they were produced.[vi] Productions and readings of Kevin Gilbert’s The Cherry Pickers in Sydney and Nindethana’s production of Jack Charles is Up and Fighting received remarkably little critical attention, despite the publicity that came with these productions. It wasn’t until the National Black Theatre’s Basically Black was staged in 1972[vii] that Australian critics began to pay attention. There were mixed responses, ranging from “embarrassing” and “basically bad” to patronising comments noting it was a “brave first effort” and an “overdue, encouraging, development”.[viii]
This was one of the first all-Indigenous productions in Australia, and these critical responses constitute part of the public assessments that are “the basis of the social and critical memory of the production.”[ix] Basically Black was a unique approach to theatre, with prominent storytellers Gary Foley and Bob Maza taking us on a journey through satirical comedy interlaced with poking fun at white people through a Minstrel-like caricature in performance. These reviewers were clearly not familiar with black theatre, and also seemed to miss the satirical nature of Basically Black’s text. But also by failing to acknowledge the production as a historical success in a unique genre, they formed future responses to the show. These condescending and dismissive approaches to black theatre were reflective of the way Australia sees Indigenous people.
The role of the reviewer
You can’t review every production the same way. Reviewing a play by Shakespeare requires a different lens from an Indigenous performance or contemporary dance. Some reviewers write with a kind of white Eurocentric template, and expect each production to fit around that. As Alison Croggon says in a 2014 essay, “The common problem is more insidious: it devolves on questions of form and expectation, a cookie cutter attitude to reviewing theatre. A review, it seems, is a review is a review.”[x]
Ideally critics need to be able to identify cultural differences in a production, and to be able to make the distinction between what is unsuccessful in its delivery and what is unfamiliar. One is often confused for the other. A show that could be an opportunity for a viewer to experience something outside their comfort zone can be dismissed as incorrect or too difficult to understand.
Is the role of the theatre critic primarily to market theatre to a thirsty public? As academic Maryrose Casey says, “press reviews are primarily consumer advice for potential buyers who have not seen the production.”[xi] I believe this shouldn’t be their entire or even their primary role. Casey goes on to differentiate between a variety of functions of reviewers, with some platforms “include[ing] a consciousness of their role as ‘newspapers of record’ within the agenda of reviews at different times.”[xii]
Theatre reviewers, and the platforms they write for, should endeavour to be better historical record-keepers of theatre productions. They should explore what the show meant, who was there, and what was achieved. Some publications employ theatre critics as consumer advisors, limiting their reviews to a few sentences and summing up the productions’ worth in however many stars they deem fit. As Guardian review Lyn Gardner commented, “the slicing of word counts and the arrival of star ratings have all increasingly turned the critic into a reviewer whose job is often seen as a consumer guide, applying the same criteria that you would to buying a new fridge.”
‘Critics need to be able to identify cultural differences in a production, and to be able to make the distinction between what is unsuccessful in its delivery and what is unfamiliar. One is often confused for the other.’
Although these kind of reviews have their place for readers who demand a quick indication of whether or not to bother with a show, this is the most common way of reviewing productions, as opposed to allowing space for complexity or nuance. As Croggon writes, with such limitations on writing about performance, it is a creative muting for both writer and reader: “The major problem is that this consumer-driven conception of critique effectively becomes a kind of censorship. It’s a censorship by default, rather than any kind of active silencing.”[xiii]
In limiting how a theatre critic can articulate the experience of a production that has taken place, this inadvertent censorship stifles a reader’s chance to learn more, and to appreciate a show beyond a vague summary with a shitty word limit. Even so, despite the word limits some white reviewers still manage to prioritise a paragraph or two to talk about how the production doesn’t fit into their “conventional” idea of theatre.
One example of this can be found in Cameron Woodhead’s 2013 review of Michael Kantor and Mr. Lewis’ Shadow King, a play that was built on the foundation of Shakespeare’s King Lear. For the rare bunch of you who haven’t seen a production of Lear (please do), or been forced to read it by some sadistic English teacher or university professor, here’s a summary: King Lear is an old king about to step down from the throne, and wants to divide his kingdom between his three daughters. Through betrayal, greedy spouses, violent acts, and family turmoil, everything goes to shit, and Lear loses everything.
Shadow King has the same structure as the original, with a cultural leader instead of a king. It’s set in desert country, where mining companies want to snap up the rest of his kingdom from Lear and his daughters. Although Shadow King is a retelling, it deviates from the original to honour the Indigenous nuances within the story and let them be the focus, although these changes are interwoven with some remaining Shakespearean texts and premises.
Woodhead found the adaptation lacking. “The new text uses extensive paraphrases that, if you’re intimate with the original, might strike you as dramatically inferior as well as needless. And the plot and character tweaks – elaborating on Edmund’s role in manipulating Lear’s daughters, for instance – seem dubious at best. Could we not have had an Aboriginal Lear that cleaved more closely to Shakespeare’s language and dramatic structure? I wonder.”[xiv]
How, while discussing a harrowing story of greed, violence, and betrayal leading to the eventual annihilation of a man’s family, can a reviewer not just take a sec to shed his need for the familiar Shakespearean experience? It makes me wonder how can we ever get some whitefellas to just trust us as the oldest living storytellers in the world. Could you please just let us take you on a journey without wishing it was whiter? It’s interesting that Woodhead criticised the performance for not being Shakespearean enough when other reviewers claimed there was too much Shakespeare: Byron Bache said that “Lewis and Kantor’s text is too faithful to structures and arcs of the original, and the play suffers for it.”[xv].
‘We need more diverse voices in critical conversations about the performing arts’
The need to hang onto a white Eurocentric mode of theatre can get in the way of seeing what the story is trying to say. There are often subtleties that whitefellas might not pick up on. In Shadow King, when Rarriwuy Hick’s Cordelia is jailed with her father, she says bitterly that “we’re not the first of our mob to end up here”. Australian Stage’s Liza Dezfouli mistook this for a joke[xvi]. Although both these reviewers go on to reflect on the significant parts of the production, they lack the cultural literacy of Indigenous writer Celeste Liddle. Liddle notes themes that other reviewers don’t pick up on, for example how the army presence within the play reflects the army Intervention in the Northern Territory, and how we can turn our backs on colonial greed by taking the time to remember where we’re from.
I should be clear that I’m not condemning personal experience as such. Although a critic’s personal lens can be detrimental, being completely barren of all personal perspective can be equally destructive. As Guardian critic Michael Billington says:[xvii]“A critic is not simply a piece of blotting paper, but someone who brings his or her political, aesthetic and sexual convictions to the job.” But although critiques do need to be presented through our own unique lens, it need to be a lens informed by more than personal judgment. Research is important.
We need more diverse voices in critical conversations about the performing arts. Critics should represent all identities of an audience – LGBTQI, people of colour, women, Gen X – because it is beneficial for more than a straight white lens to be considered. In taking the time to research the shows we review, we are giving prospective audience members an opportunity to accommodate a context they might not otherwise understand. We can give those who have seen the show and were bewildered by its unfamiliarity a chance to decipher what they saw. I’m not saying that an audience should be told how they should feel or instructed about what a show means; but when they are given a perspective on meaning or where these stories are coming from, it offers audiences the chance to open their minds to something new.
However, writing as a non-Indigenous person about an Indigenous show does allow people to view and write from the position of cultural “other”, stepping into the usual position of people of colour. That can be a good thing. Although whitefellas may not necessarily know the nuances and cultural loads of shows put together by people of colour, it’s nevertheless important that they write about them. Audiences are more often white than not, and it’s good to have an white view of what the heck us mob are on about. When whitefellas write from the perspective of being a cultural outsider in the audience and how that affects them, it can be insightful. But please take the time to know what you’re talking about.
When I get to review a white show, you can bet your ass I’ll be up late finding out everything I can about the creators, their processes, and why they long to create the stories they do. Knowing which Shakespeare play came before the other, or talking about the innuendos laced through a text by Ibsen, can inspire an audience to learn. A good critic should also be able to inspire audiences to find out what influenced Leah Purcell’s plays, how Richard Frankland began much-needed conversations about deaths in custody, and how the oldest living culture in the world is continuing to tell their stories.
I hope that more of our mob continue to tell stories in the form of reviews, as well as on stages, and that all reviewers examine and question the themes of Indigenous stories before they assume our “dramatic inferiority”.
[i] It’s More than Opening a Book https://witnessperformance.com/research-its-more-than-opening-a-book/
[ii] Maryrose Casey Creating Frames Page 12
[iii] Maryrose Casey. “Theatre or corroboree, what’s in a name? Framing Indigenous Australian nineteenth century commercial performance practices’.” Creating White Australia (2009): 117-32.
[iv] Parsons, Michael. “The tourist corroboree in South Australia to 1911.” Aboriginal History 21 (1997): 46-69) (Taplin, in Woods 1879, pp. 37-8; Bemdt & Bemdt 1985:381 and Bruce & Callaway 1991, as cited by Parsons, 1997:59-60).
[v] (Mount Barker Courier, 3 August 1883 as cited by Parsons,1997: 65).
[vi] Maryrose Casey Creating Frames Page 66
[viii] Gilbert, Because a White Man’ll Never Do it. Pg.118 as cited by Maryrose Casey, Creating Frames Page 67
[ix] Maryrose Casey Creating Frames Page 67
[xi] Maryrose Casey Creating Frames Page 67
[xii] Maryrose Casey Creating Frames Page 67
[xiv] Theatre Review: The Shadow King , Cameron Woodhead 17 October 2013. The Sydney Morning Herald https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/theatre/theatre-review-the-shadow-king-20131017-2voky.html
[xv] Theatre review: The Shadow King, Malthouse Theatre, Byron Bache, 2013 https://www.heraldsun.com.au/entertainment/arts/theatre-review-the-shadow-king-malthouse-theatre/news-story/3b921b297a4ab288b889026b765fe47f
[xvi] The Shadow King | Malthouse Theatre Liza Dezfouli 18 October 2013 Australian Stage
[xvii] Michael Billington on what you need to be a theatre critic
Michael Billington The Guardian, 18 Feb, 2010 https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2010/feb/17/critics-notebook-michael-billington