Life & Culture

5 Questions to Jose Solís (culture critic)

Jose Solís A Honduran-born cultural critic, writer, podcast creator, and educator, he has been imbued with the performing arts world for more than two decades. His work has appeared in countless publications including Backstage, American Theater, and The New York Times. Recently, Solís participated in the relaunch of 3Views, a digital publication that offers multiple perspectives on theatre. and create BIPOC Critics’ Lab, a new mentorship program for Blacks, Indigenous People, and People of Color that has partnered with the Kennedy Center. In all of these projects, Solís seeks to challenge institutional spaces and the field of art journalism to make room for underrepresented voices.

How did the BIPOC critics lab meet?

For years, I’ve been uncomfortable with the idea that New York City thinks of itself as the theater capital of the world and not have educational programs tailored to critics. The more I learned about the industry, the more aware I became of how white patriarchal systems are in place designed to preserve the status quo.

When I joined organizations like the American Theater Critics Association and Drama Desk (both of which I left because of rampant racism in their ranks), I learned that although the industry claims to want diversity and inclusion, things always stay on the conversation stage and action is rarely taken. People loved my idea of ​​building a workshop and mentorship program, but I’ve never met allies who wanted to make it happen with me.

Things changed in the summer of 2020 when, feeling utter helplessness while watching the social uprising after the assassination of George Floyd, I decided it was time to bring about the change I wanted to see in the world. In closing, I reviewed notes I had collected over several years and developed a syllabus, as well as a strategy that assured me that every critic who would come out of my program would do so with a paid/published piece.

I went to Twitter, as I often do, and told people what I was doing. I offered people interested in mentorship a place in what was at the time a BIPOC critics lab and received over a hundred applications. Beginning in August and over the next three months or so, I met a group of emerging critics from all over the United States, who put their faith in me and what I was trying to do.

Within a month of launching the pilot, I was contacted by the folks at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts who offered to host and fund the next batch. As of December 2021, the Kennedy Center has performed the second lab and is currently producing the third lab. I still can’t believe how blessed I am.

Participants from the second BIPOC Critics Lab hosted by the Kennedy Center

in your November 2020 article for Quill, you talk about the need to “reinvent” criticism. What are some of the new ways you are approaching your writing, and do you think the massive social and cultural shifts we have seen since the beginning of the pandemic and the widespread movement(s) toward anti-oppression and decolonization have contributed to any new directions in art criticism?

For starters, I want us to stop associating criticism with writing exclusively. The art of writing, which I loved, is often synonymous with dominant oppression. Language and grammar, which I love again, are tools we have imposed on ourselves and continue to impose on others in order to make sense of the world. What happens with an instrument as delicate as writing is that everyone who strays from the line is either reprimanded or dismissed.

The criticism that I dream about has more than one form, it can appear in the form of a painting, a haiku, a dance performance, etc. cookie. I believe that criticism is art, and given that art responds to life, criticism must reflect the same vitality that the world meets. We also owe it to the art forms we cover to evolve with.

I hope the changes brought about by the pandemic have created more of the sense of possibility you alluded to in your question. I’m still seeing big enough movement to claim that things are finally moving towards progress though.

I was really drawn to the quote, “We’re not talking about acting, we be Acting,” from your podcast’s mission statement. Can you elaborate on what that means in terms of criticism and information?

You often get upset by the idea that if you are not a white critic, your area of ​​expertise is limited to art related to what others consider your identity, at least the visual personality. For example, as a Latino, people (including colleagues and editors) tend to assume that I am the ideal person to engage with art that has made and/or is associated with Latinos. Not only is this yet another form of profiling and forcing non-white critics to “stay on track,” but it also reveals a failure of fiction and a real abuse of the arts.

People from underrepresented communities are often asked about ways to combat racism and create inclusive environments, which tend to force our work to be tainted with statement-like statements that limit the scope of what we can explore in action. We rarely see white critics acknowledging the whiteness of white characters in novels for example, but we would expect critics of color to comment on the cultural traits of characters of color.

Rather than talking about issues created by the white patriarchy that must be reformed by them, since they put the system in place, I am more interested in pursuing views that go beyond mere social policy. Not because it doesn’t matter, but because it’s not the only thing that matters. So, instead of talking about what others consider to be our identity, our work through the mere presence of it is a representation.

Jose Solis - Photography by Dan Fortune

Jose Solis – Photography by Dan Fortune

You also participate in Did they like it?!, a live theater commentary aggregator that aims to make commentary “more accessible”. Can you talk about the work you do there, and how some of the art criticism might not be accessible to a regular audience?

I was appointed in the spring of 2021 to form a group of five critics who will contribute original reviews and features to DTLI. The site acts as an aggregator that collects feedback from many outlets (in a process that is constantly evolving), and my job there is to make sure that the voices of one of our critics are included among many others. I am grateful to the team behind the site for giving me the freedom to find the people I thought were best for the job. Currently, I lead and edit a team that includes Juan Michael Porter II, Ana Zamperana, Pedatri D. Choudary, Ran Shea, and Christian Lewis. They are all great critics.

More than inaccessibility to criticism, I’m concerned that people don’t care about criticism at first, which is why another aspect of my job is to make sure we welcome younger critics into the fold because if we want our medium to survive it’s imperative that we update our references and methods with which we communicate. For example, I recently was thrilled to read and edit a review by Zambrana who wrote cleverly about “Diana” relating to the pop princesses I grew up with. It was refreshing to read a shot of a young woman applying factual/relevant references, rather than dissecting the musical by comparing it to the ‘classics’. We need to remind people that criticism is directed at them, that critics should seek to create a conversation rather than end it.

People from underrepresented communities are often asked about ways to combat racism and create inclusive environments, which tend to force our work to be tainted with statement-like statements that limit the scope of what we can explore in action.

What can we expect to see in the future of BIPOC Critics’ Lab?

The third batch of the lab is taking place at the Kennedy Center (online) from January 9 to March 13, 2022. I dream of one day being able to host several labs annually, taking them internationally. The likeable people of the Kennedy Center welcomed critics from outside the United States, and it’s a beautiful reminder of how the strange era of Zoom reminded us in so many ways how small the world was and how important society really is.

If you’re reading this and are part of an art community, university, or art-oriented organization, reach out to me and help me bring the lab to where you are. In the meantime, I am thrilled to see the success of the many critics who have come out of the lab so far. Seeing their by-lines through different mediums, it makes me feel like the happiest man alive.

I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially independent program of the Forum of American Composers, funded by generous donors and institutional support. The opinions expressed are those of the author only and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF.

gift for ACF Helps support the work of ICIYL. To learn more about ACF, visit Section “in the ACF” or composersforum.org.

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