José Rivera and the New York Times

by Bernardo Cubría

in National Conference

Post image for José Rivera and the New York Times

(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Survive | Thrive} blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich.)

Adoration of the Old Woman by José Rivera, ran this year at INTAR in New York City from March 13th to April 27th. It enjoyed a very successful run and was extended twice. The following piece is a reaction to the NYT review of the show, which was published on March 24, 2014.

José Rivera is a great fucking playwright. He’s one of the masters. Ask anyone who works in the theatre world. No matter what race or what background, people love his work. He is a unique voice, a special talent, and I feel very lucky to be alive while his work is being produced.

José Rivera is also probably the greatest Latino playwright of all time. I mean, that’s one of those subjective opinions that really shouldn’t even be classified as subjective anymore cause it’s just a fact. It’s like, well, it’s like saying Roberto Clemente is probably the greatest Latino baseball player of all time. You can throw other names into the discussion, a few of whom come close, or maybe even surpass him, but at the end of the day, he’s at least on the Mount Rushmore.

Which is why, when I read the New York Times review by Claudia LaRocco for Rivera’s Adoration of the Old Woman (now playing at INTAR), I got pissed off. I got so goddamn angry it’s dumb. Then I got sad, and then I thought: “Why is it that the majority of people who work in the theatre love Jose Rivera but for some reason the critics at the New York Times don’t seem to?”

See the thing is, I LOVED Adoration of the Old Woman at INTAR and the night I saw it, it got a standing ovation, so I wasn’t the only one.

Now, before I continue, full disclosure: I got my start at INTAR, two of my best friends were in the play, and I’m Latino. So I’m obviously biased.

But I think, and hope, that I am allowed to wonder why it seems that the majority of the time when August Wilson, Edward Albee, David Henry Hwang, etc., have a play produced, the NYT reviews of those plays are mostly positive or at least make sure that they mention how awesome we as a theatre culture think those playwrights are. Because they ARE awesome. So why not José Rivera?

Now, let’s be clear. I do NOT believe the New York Times or any of its theatre critics are racist towards Latinos or any other race. I find that accusation to be lazy and boring. It’s more complicated than that. So please, no matter what you think of this piece, it is NOT a “it’s hard being a minority in the theatre” piece. I’m also not claiming that every single one of José Rivera’s plays is perfect and above criticism. Nor do I believe that playwrights of a certain stature shouldn’t be treated the same as every other playwright when being reviewed.

What am I saying is that I think there is something worth analyzing in the “NYT theatre critics/José Rivera” relationship that I believe can provide valuable answers to theatre people about why it’s hard to sell seats when a play written by someone who is not of the “majority” is produced in NYC. I also think that the “NYT theatre critics/José Rivera” relationship can help us better understand why drama criticism (which is necessary and important regardless of my petty actor feelings) should be held to higher standards by the people who edit the Arts Section in the New York Times. As my uncle says “hay jugo en esta fruta” (translation: “there is juice in this fruit”). And I want smarter people than I to get that jugo.

So let’s all look into this phenomenon – ” NYT theatre critics/José Rivera” – because I believe some of the answers to these questions will help us better understand how reviews can stunt the growth of certain theatre communities. I also think some of these answers will help us better understand how to identify accidental racism and accidental classism within reviews. And more importantly, I know that some of those answers will help us better understand why theatre is hanging on by a thread financially.

So let’s pull a Nate Silver and analyze the numbers. I looked at every review José Rivera has received in the Times (not including short plays that were a part of festivals) and tallied up the good reviews, the so-so reviews, and the bad reviews.  And, yes, I know that my interpretation of these reviews is subjective. The list goes like this:

Good Reviews:

The House of Ramon Iglesia/Good Review/Frank Rich/1983
Marisol/Good Review/Frank Rich/1993

So-So Reviews:

References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot/So-So Review/Bruce Weber/2001
Cloud Tectonics (Culture Project)/So-So Review/Neil Genzingler/2006
Boleros for the Disenchanted/So-So Review/Slyviane Gold/2008

Bad Reviews:

The Promise/Mel Gussow/1988
Each Day Dies With Sleep/Frank Rich/1990
Cloud Tectonics (Playwrights Horizons)/ Ben Brantley/1997
Sueño/ D.J.R. Bruckner/2001
School of the Americas/Jason Zinnoman/2006
(Massacre) Sing to Your Children/David Rooney/2012
Adoration of the Old Woman/Claudia LaRocco/2014

So, possible conclusions:

Maybe Frank Rich “got” José Rivera in a way that these other critics didn’t. And Cloud Tectonics is either a so-so play or a bad play…

Or,

Maybe José Rivera hasn’t written a great play since 1993.

Or,

Maybe José Rivera’s plays are so specifically Latin that they only resonate on a deeper level with Latino people. And maybe critics, when confronted with a culture that is not their own, feel so alienated that they shut down and stop listening to the play.

Or,

Maybe the Times critics who have reviewed José Rivera’s plays for the last 20+ years have been the wrong people for the job, because they are people with a seemingly common subjective palate and the NYT critics desk should reflect a broader variety of palates and tastes, because a large majority of the existing theatre community, which IS made up of a broader variety of palates and tastes, has a very different opinion on the majority of José Rivera’s plays than the NYT theatre critics.

I still haven’t found exactly what conclusion I draw from reading all of those reviews. But I do know that I, and so many other theatre people, so deeply believe that José Rivera is amazing, that I want his Google search results to reflect THOSE opinions. And I realize they are ALL purely subjective opinions, just like every review in the Times is a purely subjective opinion. But the problem is that when I watch Adoration of the Old Woman at Intar, and cry and laugh and fucking believe in goddamn theatre again, the only people that find out are my 493 twitter followers, so it doesn’t matter in a big picture and financial kind of way. But when Claudia LaRocco from the NYT writes her subjective opinion it does matter in those ways. It carries weight. It affects how many people buy tickets to see the show.

Because, sadly, a review in the New York Times can have the power to stop more people from seeing a play. And in the case of Adoration of the Old Woman, it can affect how many “non-Latinos” and how many “non-theatre people” will be exposed to José’s work and to INTAR. So a bad review can in fact  prevent INTAR from growing its audience. It can also prevent INTAR from being exposed to larger donors, thus not allowing the artists at INTAR to play in the same arena as Playwrights Horizons or the Public. So those subjective opinions matter.

So, as a theatre community, we have all accepted, past the point of subjective opinion, that José Rivera is one of the great playwrights of our time. But according to the NYT theatre critics he’s only batting .166. And that’s bullshit cause he’s Roberto Clemente and Clemente’s batting average was .317.

And I know that the NYT is not just one person and that that these reviews were written by many different human beings of different backgrounds. But these 10 people’s reviews on 12 different shows now live forever in the annals of history and the internet. It doesn’t seem to be a fair legacy for one of our generation’s most influential playwrights.

I mean, seriously, José Rivera only batted .167? No mames.


Bernardo Cubría is a writer, actor, and host of the podcast Off and on: A New York Theatre Podcast. As a playwright his play The Redhead is Coming has received public readings at The People’s Light and Theatre Company in Philadelphia, Inviolet Rep, and Barefoot Theatre Company.  His first play Down Boy has received readings at Wordsmyth Theatre Company in Houston, Texas, and by Token Collective in NYC. His short plays Danica and Jean and I Would Have That Night have been produced at over 20 short play festivals around the country. As an actor his favorite credits include Cesar in Basilica (Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre), Philip in Philip Goes Forth (The Mint),  Husband in So Go the Ghosts of Mexico (La Mama), Luis in American Jornalero (INTAR), The Man (understudy) in A Summer’s Day (Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre), Florizel in The Winter’s Tale (People’s Light and Theatre), Hamlet in Hamlet (New Perspectives Theatre), Manuelo in Boleros for the Disenchanted  (Richmond, VA) and Ed in This is Fiction (Cherry Lane). He’s a proud member of Inviolet Repertory Theatre Company.TV: The Good Wife, We Are New York, Film: Late Phases, The Truth About Lies, and Death of an Ally.

  • Rebecca Udden

    A bad review in the New York Times can not only stop people from seeing a play, it can stop a theater from doing a play, which I think is much more damaging in the long run. Even if I love a script, knowing that it has been trashed in the Times will make me reluctant to schedule it, knowing that a Google search will bring that review up to anyone (including local reviewers) looking for more information.
    Another aspect of this discussion is the inherent sexism of an all-male reviewing community (as we have in Houston) toward plays that focus on issues generally considered the purview of women, but that’s another discussion entirely.

  • Greg

    Along the Nate Silver lines, in all of his plays produced in NYC from 2001 on, he has never been reviewed by either of the top two lead critics for the Times, it’s always been a second stringer. I think this has to be a factor in telling us what the editors think of Rivera. If it was a new play by Sarah Ruhl, for example, Isherwood would be there, regardless of the venue. So he’s already behind the curve even before the review comes out, whether it’s good or bad.

  • Tina Fallon

    If we want to to stop the theater community from using a Times review as the single most significant yardstick for success, let’s start right now. I quote from the piece: “It enjoyed a very successful run and was extended twice.” So if the mediocre review didn’t prevent people from coming to see the show, why are we so concerned about the Times’ critics? And why would we diminish in any way the brilliant work of Lou Moreno and Intar as the producers of this hugely successful run?

    Because of what Rebecca posts below: “Even if I love a script, knowing that it has been trashed in the Times will make me reluctant to schedule it.”

    Let’s put the blame where it belongs. With the chickenhearted producers who depend on The New York Times to do their work for them. Stop letting them off the hook. Arguments like the one above justify lazy programming. Instead, let’s praise the brilliant work of the playwright AND the resourceful producers who made the show a real, audience-pleasing, playwright-loving success.

  • JR

    I agree with Greg’s comment below. In the past several seasons, I have seen Latino playwrights have world premieres at theaters/venues that normally score reviews from the top critics (such as the Rattlestick among others) get reviewed by ‘second string’ critics. It certainly seems that Latino playwrights and theater artists, even more so than our peers in the black and Asian communities, are still battling against invisibility.

  • emil

    amen!