Critic Spotlight: February 2022
Yasmin Zacaria Mikhaiel (she/they)
Primary Outlet: Chicago Reader
First, where do your reviews appear, and how long have you been there?
I work as the Chicago Reader’s Audience Engagement Manager and previously freelanced with them as a theater critic beginning in 2019.
What is your background in theater and/or criticism?
I earned my BFA in Dramaturgy/Dramatic Criticism from The Theatre School at DePaul University. While there, I had more intensive training on the ins and out of production dramaturgy than criticism, but I found my way back to writing after graduating.
Now I’m faculty and teach a slew of classes including History of Dramatic Literature and Intro to Theatre Studies.
What led you to become a critic?
In 2018, controversy erupted in Chicago surrounding a play that received a questionable (read: racist) review. I wrote an essay taking up the harm and erasure present in the review. It was my first piece of public writing and the response I received from the artistic community was incredibly mobilizing. From there, I became fascinated with criticism as a method of advocacy and a means to archive. I wondered what could be lost if a critic ignores the playwright’s intentions or refuses to rigorously engage with what is set before them.
Do you have any particular philosophy about criticism that guides you?
Where I begin is acknowledging our society is one of the systems designed to platform certain stories and experiences over others. We must let go of thinking we can write without subjectivity — that, in fact, embracing our own personhood in our writing makes it more specific and stronger.
In what felt like the biggest indulgence, my graduate thesis work centered the future and sustainability of theater criticism. Even the title points to the work that must be done: “Not your daddy’s theatre criticism: countering white supremacy culture with inclusive possibility models.”
What are some things you look for in a play?
It’s becoming more and more common that theater critics are also theater artists themselves. I bring dramaturgical sensibilities to my practice and much of what I write can boil down to “How does this play function?” and “What does it mean to me”?
I have an eye on composition, both from a design and writing perspective. As a critic, I focus on new plays, which require a certain approach that leans on the play’s implications. I’m most curious about how power functions. I’m curious where agency lives.
Tell me about a specific play that you found either overwhelmingly good or seriously problematic. Is it easier to write good or bad reviews?
As a critic, the amount of time you spend writing the review will never match the amount of time the artists spent working on it. I err on the side of grace. My interrogation of the piece is rooted in curiosity. I try to resist pinning reviews as “good” or “bad,” which is difficult because it translates into “Should someone see this play or not?”
I appreciate the space to uplift an incredible play I’ve witnessed, but I truthfully don’t have the energy to break it down. When it comes to plays we deem “problematic,” I’d push for specificity about what makes it so. Dancing around what feels bad or makes our jaws drop doesn’t serve artists or audiences.
As we emerge from the pandemic shutdowns, have you noticed anything different (aside from the masks)?
I’m noticing a desire for business as usual when it comes to seeking and platforming press coverage. Although there have been years to interrogate how criticism is aligned with various tenets of white supremacy (i.e. urgency, worship of the written word, defensiveness) there has been virtually no concerted effort to combat it. The ways we work still hurt. Compensation is abysmal. Non-white critics are overlooked, and mentorship is under-resourced.
Tell me something about you and/or your work that doesn’t fit under any of the other questions.
Twitter has been the greatest vehicle for getting my work read and a part of national discourse. I bring my full self to my social media, for better or worse. Feel free to follow me @yasminzacaria.
Please link a few reviews/articles about which you feel proud.
July 1, 2021 in American Theatre: “Overworked, Underpaid, Unheard: Chicago Theatre Freelancers Speak Out”
Nov. 18, 2021 in the Chicago Reader: “Riverboat romance: Florencia en el Amazonas brings magic realism to the Lyric stage”
— Questions submitted by Karen Topham, lightly edited by Lindsay Christians.