Request for Only IBPOC Reviewers For bug is an Exciting Big Deal

Photo of woman sitting on the floor looking up - Yolanda Bonnell in bug

This week marks the opening of manidoons collective’s piece bug co-presented by Theatre Passe Muraille and Native Earth Performing Arts. The piece is created and performed by Yolanda Bonnell.

If you follow theatre in Toronto at all, you’ve probably heard by now that manidoons collective – run by Bonnell and Cole Alvis – had a request:

“In our process and work of decolonizing theatre practices, centering marginalized voices, particularly IBPOC (Indigenous, Black and people of colour) is incredibly important. There is an aspect to cultural work – or in our case, artistic ceremony – which does not align with current colonial reviewing practices. In order to encourage a deeper discussion of the work, we are inviting critiques or thoughts from IBPOC folks only. There is a specific lens that white settlers view cultural work through and at this time, we’re just not interested in bolstering that view, but rather the thoughts and views of fellow marginalized voices and in particular Indigenous women.”

You also might wonder why it has taken me so long to comment on this when The Globe and Mail, The Star and even CBC radio q got into the action on Monday (Feb 10) including interviews with Bonnell about the decision. The “very problematic review” Bonnell refers to in the interviews was the 2018 MoT review of bug. I was honestly unsure of how to proceed. It seemed disingenuous to not acknowledge that it was our review, but I also did not want to pull focus away from the incredible work Bonnell is doing by talking about the old review.

Initially, I just took it as an opportunity to revisit the review to make sure the editors’ note was clear. I felt it didn’t have enough transparency, and added a second note with a more detailed breakdown of what was changed in the piece and quoted the paragraph that had been removed. I decided I would leave it at that and a review of this production because I honestly just didn’t know how to engage with it.

But the more time passed the more I wanted to be able to show my excitement. The excitement that I felt when I heard the request.

Actually, when I first heard it, I had two thoughts: Excitement at the bold powerful request, and dread at what the fallout might be.

I’m excited because it is always exciting to see someone stand up for their art. But I am also excited because the voices talking about theatre (and those with the furthest reach) in Toronto right now largely don’t represent the diversity of our city. I strongly believe that by inviting only IBPOC reviewers to their work, more diverse voices may be brought to the table – a foot in the door as a freelance writer can make all the difference.

My dread was from the fact that critics can be a prickly group who don’t like to be told what to do. My mind immediately went to 2014 when Factory Theatre asked critics not come until after opening – critics seemed outraged. They bought tickets to the opening and reviewed it anyway, ignoring the artists’ wishes. I didn’t get in the middle of that one, but denying the wishes of the artists, being angry that free tickets weren’t being provided in the usual manner, it all felt like a strange sense of entitlement. I was pleasantly surprised this time around by the response from critics to Yolanda’s request.

The media coverage was either neutral or positive. But my relief was short-lived because I broke the golden rule of the Internet: I read the comments.

And the comments are awful. They are filled with racist, entitled vitriol. And oh-so-many cries of reverse racism (which, dear reader, just isn’t a thing) And no, I’m not surprised. I knew it would be there, but boy, I wish we’d moved beyond this. But of course, we haven’t.

In fact, as I was writing this piece VICE published a piece written by Bonnell where she speaks about what this experience has been like so far. One of the things she says is: “Within hours of discussing that decision on CBC’s Q Monday, I was subjected to floods of attacks on social media. I’ve been called a racist, a bigot, a whore, a cunt. Accused of doing this to boost my ticket sales. I’ve been threatened. And as this article comes out, it’s still going.” She continues to say, “But our decision was rooted in the safety for artists of colour. And having people telling me I’m brave and that they’ve wanted to do the same thing for a long time makes a lot of the backlash worth it.”

Witnessing the response to manidoons’ reviewing request reminds me that the landscape of arts criticism is changing. Some of this change is terribly disheartening — major news outlets cut coverage and jobs, while independent journalism continues to be swallowed by corporate media outlets. But some of the change also means that this is a prime time to influence a culture shift in arts criticism. Freelancers can get their foot in the door. I have seen one media outlet bring in someone they don’t usually use, and another publication that reviews theatre put a call out for an IBPOC writer who would be able to work with them. And that’s just what I have personally witnessed. These actions are more than just gestures, they facilitate change.

I personally think that artists should be able to make whatever requests they want. No one is entitled to free tickets, and no one is being stopped at the door. It ultimately comes down to a personal (or corporate) choice about whether to respect an artist’s wishes. If anyone reading this (especially my fellow white settlers) had a strong reaction to manidoons’ reviewer request, and if you feel like a reviewer has the right to go against an artist’s wishes, I really hope you will take this opportunity to stop and reflect on why you believe this. What is it that makes you feel it is so essential a reviewer be able to review whatever they like, even when the artist makes it plain their opinion is not welcome.

You don’t have to wait for the reviews to decide to go see the show. We couldn’t send anyone until Friday, so you won’t see a review here for a day or two. A review is only one person’s opinion anyway. So go, bear witness to this piece of work, this artistic ceremony.

You have until Saturday, February 22, to check it out. If you are white and you have the impulse to tell the world what you think on social media, maybe quell it. Maybe just stick to amplifying the voices of IBPOC folks instead.

From the Theatre Passe Muraille website: “bug follows The Girl as she navigates her way through her intergenerational trauma while being followed by Manidoons, the physical manifestation of her addictions. Performed and created by Yolanda Bonnell (NOW Magazine’s Artists to Watch 2016), the 2019 Dora-nominated physical performance weaves stories of Indigenous women grappling with their painful past and making tough choices to survive in this country.”

bug plays at Theatre Passe Muraille until February 22.

Photo of Yolanda Bonnell by Kaytee Dalton