by Mo Brady
This week in The New York Times, something shocking was printed. But not in the headlines, where offensive political news has become the norm. This was back in the arts section, where surprising statements are more of a rarity.
In her review of the off-Broadway production of Smokey Joe’s Cafe, Laura Collins-Hughes wrote,
“There are moments in the production when fresh energy breaks through, though, and they often occur when the show pulls back and goes for simplicity… Alysha Umphress is at her best with the mournful, country-flavored “Pearl’s a Singer.”
Ms. Umphress, by the way, is bigger than the other women onstage, and the costume designer, Alejo Vietti, doesn’t seem to have known how to work with that, dressing her in an unnecessarily unflattering way.”
This article was astonishing for a number of reasons. Shocking because this happened in 2018. Shocking because it was written by a woman. Shocking because it was in the country’s preeminent newspaper.
I had the pleasure of seeing this production last week. (My thoughts are shared here.) I can think of a thousand things to ruminate and critique about Smokey Joe’s Cafe. But the dress size of an actor is not one of them.
What a non sequitur.
Yes, the author compliments Umphress’ performance, calling it “her best.” However, what this dig at Umphress’ dress size does is effectively nullify Collins-Hughes previous compliment: Sure, Umphress may be a good performer but she doesn’t look good in a dress.
As Umphress expressed in a social media post earlier today, “while the overall point was to malign the costume designer, her phrasing made me the sacrificial ‘fat’ lamb.”
The purpose of a theatre review is to guide audiences towards or away from theatrical experiences based on the writer’s expertise. Reviewers critique the work of a production both as a whole and as individual parts in order to champion artists or provide feedback on their work. Collins-Hughes’ description of designer Vietti does neither. Rather it uses the Vietti as a backdoor entry into body shaming.
Here’s the thing: Umphress is at her best in Smokey Joe’s Cafe. An expert an contemporary song interpretation, she’s a magnetic performer that has given astonishing, truthful and centered performances on New York stages for almost a decade. There’s a reason that Umphress is a well-respected and well-liked member of the theatre community. It is because of her spirit, not in spite of her body.
The best reviewers are ones who spend years cultivating a voice. In the best cases, they become a sounding board for artists to try out their work. Over years and decades, artists and critics can engage in a dialogue, working together to push an art form forward.
This portion of the article was not a review. It was, as Umphress said “a mean girl.”