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The case of Yolanda Bonnell: Should everyone really be a critic?

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Having your work misunderstood is a heartbreaking feeling for any writer or artist, particularly when your work is dealing with issues that are important to you.

For this reason, Yolanda Bonnell’s comment that she only wants people of colour to review her play ‘Bug’, which is about two indigenous women, is a completely rational way for her to feel like her work is being properly appreciated and understood.

It isn’t a controversial thing to say that typically the majority of critics are from a very specific demographic that being mainly white, male and wealthy.

This means however well-intentioned the critics are when reviewing plays that deal with issues of race, gender and class they have not had the first-hand experience of the kind of prejudice that is present.

If you have never experienced racism then you may, unintendedly, miss references to it and therefore look at plays in a completely different way to which they were intended to be read. This is not only frustrating for the playwright but also means that valuable messages are being missed and the play isn’t appreciated as much as it deserves to be.

For a long time in literary criticism, voices of colour have been severely underrepresented and undervalued and whilst the request that this particular play only is reviewed by people of colour has provoked controversy among some critics, actions like this will hopefully give voice to critics who have been ignored. The stance acts as a political statement, that people of colour need to be heard in the world of theatre, hopefully encouraging to more people of colour that have previously felt alienated by the world of theatre to participate in it.

The comments made by Yolanda Bonnell were not unfair, they simply aired a frustration that many writers of colour face when their work isn’t read by people that could understand it and having only people of colour review her was a solution to this problem. And it is hardly likely to mean that white critics can’t write reviews anymore, they have a plethora of other plays to review instead.

Faye Navesey

Indigenous artist Yolanda Bonnell came out today with a fairly controversial statement saying criticism should ‘come from a place of knowledge’. She had an unusual request for the media when her play Bug opened in Toronto – that the reviewers of the play only be people of colour. Her logic is that only they can understand where she is coming from.

I can understand a little bit of where she gets that opinion from. Culturally there are significant differences from race to race – whether it is from historical point of view or from modern day scenarios. But that is about as much agreement as she will get from me.

Art – whether it is film, plays, poetry or even just plain old painting – is about storytelling. It is to narrate something that someone else may have never experienced and to make it somehow relatable – to impact the other person and to make them feel like they have been through that even when it isn’t the case.

While being of colour can give an added perspective, it is not and should not be the be all and end all to decide if a critic is right. The main point of a review is to assess the work of art and quality of the review and not the colour of the reviewer should be the primary concern.

In fact, to ban someone from reviewing your work by itself defeats the purpose of art which seeks to expose people to cultures and social dynamics that they normally would not be exposed to.

Cutting a set of reviewers off would only serve to precipitate prejudice and even introduce a culture where people are scared to give an honest review for hurting their own perception within society – thus resulting in them not doing their job properly.

Moreover, being someone of colour does not translate to an inherent understanding of indigenous art. Even among people of colour there are significant differences. A South Asian born and raised in Britain will probably have a very different perspective to a South Asian born and raised in South Asia like myself. And nobody can claim that both of us understand South Asian or British culture equally – because the truth very likely is we don’t.

And finally where does this “niche reviewing” stop? Should only doctors review medical TV shows like House M.D. and Code Black? Should only war veterans review Saving Private Ryan? If it does not make sense there then there is no reason why it should make sense with race.

Seshadhri Subramanian

Last modified: 5th March 2020

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