5 Questions to Jose Solís (culture critic)

Jose Solís is a Honduran-born culture critic, writer, podcast creator, and mentor who has been saturated in the performing arts world for over two decades. His work has appeared in countless publications including Backstage, American Theatre, and the New York Times. Most recently, Solís has been involved in the relaunch of 3Views, a digital publication offering multiple perspectives on theater; and the creation of the BIPOC Critics Lab, a new mentorship program for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color that has partnered with the Kennedy Center. Across all of these projects, Solís seeks to challenge institutional spaces and the field of arts journalism to give way to underrepresented voices.

How did the BIPOC Critics Lab come together?

For years I had been uncomfortable with the idea of New York City thinking of itself as the theatre capital of the world and not having educational programs designed specifically for critics. The more I knew of the industry, the more aware I became of how there were white patriarchal systems in place designed to maintain the status quo.

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

Things changed in the summer of 2020 when, feeling absolutely powerless while I witnessed the social uprising after the assassination of George Floyd, I decided it was time to enact the change I wanted to see in the world. During lockdown, I went over the notes I’d collected over several years and developed a syllabus, as well as a strategy that assured me that every single critic to come out of my program would do so with a paid/published piece.

I went on Twitter, as I often do, and told people about what I was doing. I offered people interested in mentorship a spot in what by then was the BIPOC Critics Lab and received over a hundred applications. Starting in August and over the next three months or so, I met with a group of budding critics from all across the US, who put their trust in me and what I was trying to do.

Within a month of launching the pilot program, I was contacted by the folks at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts who offered to host and fund the next installment. As of December 2021, the Kennedy Center made the second Lab happen and are currently producing the third. I still can’t believe how blessed I am.

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

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’re approaching your own writing, and do you think the massive social and cultural shifts we’ve seen since the beginning of the pandemic and the large-scale movement(s) towards anti-oppression and decolonization have contributed to any new trends in arts criticism?

For starters, I want us to stop associating criticism exclusively with writing. The art of writing, which I happen to love, is often synonymous with hegemonic oppression. Language and grammar, which again I do love, are tools that we have imposed upon ourselves and continue to impose on others in order to make sense of the world. What happens with a tool as precise as writing is that whoever steps out of the line is either reprimanded or excluded.

The criticism I dream of has more than one form, it can appear as a painting, a haiku, a dance performance, etc. I half-joke that I’ll die a happy critic the day I see a review appear in the shape of a cookie. I believe that criticism is art and given that art responds to life, criticism should reflect the same vibrancy with which the world meets us. We also owe it to the artforms we cover to evolve along with them.

I wish the changes brought upon by the pandemic had created more of that sense of possibility hinted at in your question. I’ve yet to see a movement big enough to claim that things are finally gearing towards progress though.

I was really drawn to the quote, “We don’t talk about representation, we are representation,” from your podcast’s mission statement. Can you elaborate on what that means in terms of criticism and media?

I often get upset by the idea that if you’re not a white critic, your area of expertise is limited to art related to what is perceived by others as your identity, at least the visible one. For example, as a Latino, people (including colleagues and editors) tend to assume that I’m the perfect person to tackle art made by/or related to Latinos. Not only is this yet another form of profiling and forcing non-white critics to “stay in their lane,” but it also reveals a failure of imagination and a true disservice to the arts.

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

Rather than talking about issues that have been created by the white patriarchy and should be fixed by them, since they put the system in place, I’m more interested in pursuing points of view that go beyond merely the sociopolitical. Not because it doesn’t matter, but because it’s not the only thing that matters. Therefore, rather than talking about what others perceive as our identity, our work by its mere existence is representation.

Jose Solís--Photo by Dan Fortune

Jose Solís–Photo by Dan Fortune

You’re also involved in Did They Like It?!, an aggregator for live theatre reviews that sets out to make reviews “more accessible.” Can you talk about the work you do there, and how some arts criticism may not be reachable by ordinary audiences?

I was hired in the spring of 2021 to put together a cohort of five critics who would be contributing original reviews and features to DTLI. The site works as an aggregator that gathers reviews from across several outlets (in a constantly evolving process), and my job there is to make sure one of our critics’ voices is included among the many others. I am grateful to the team behind the site for giving me the liberty to find the people I thought were best for the job. Currently, I lead and edit a team including Juan Michael Porter II, Ana Zambrana, Bedatri D. Choudhury, Ran Xia, and Christian Lewis. All of them are magnificent critics.

More than criticism not being reachable, I worry about people not being interested in criticism to begin with, which is why another aspect of my mission is making sure we welcome younger critics into the fold because if we want our medium to survive, it’s essential we update our references and the ways in which we communicate. For example, recently I was thrilled to read and edit a review by Zambrana who cleverly wrote about “Diana” relating it to the pop princesses she grew up with. It was refreshing to read a take by a young woman who applied down-to-earth/relatable references, instead of dissecting the musical by comparing it to “the classics.” We need to remind people criticism is meant for them, critics should seek to create conversation, rather than end it.

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

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

The third installment of the Lab is happening at the Kennedy Center (online) from Jan. 9 – March 13, 2022. I dream of one day being able to host several labs a year, taking them international even. The lovely people at the Kennedy Center have welcomed critics from outside the US, a beautiful reminder of how the strange era of Zoom has in many ways reminded us of the smallness of the world and how important community really is.

If you’re reading this and are part of an artistic community, a university, or an arts-oriented institution, reach out to me and help me bring the Lab to where you are. In the meantime, I’m overjoyed to see the success of so many critics who’ve come out of the Lab so far. Truly seeing their bylines across various mediums, makes me feel like the luckiest man alive.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 


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