Theater In Conversation
JULIA “JUJU” NIETO & RISHI MUTALIK with Jose Solís
Reflections on the Necessity and Vitality of the New BIPOC Critics Lab
Recently I’ve spoken and written at length about the reasons why I felt compelled to create the BIPOC Critics Lab, a 10-week training program for budding culture critics of color who find their voices missing from the discourse. Unlike other workshops, the Lab concludes with each critic having been assigned a piece for publication by a theater company or willing outlets, with the idea of setting a precedent to pay critics for their work. If you think everyone is paid for criticism, boy do I have news for you.
The second installment of the Lab is currently being hosted by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and this made me think about a key part of my work. In addition to highlighting the need for BIPOC representation in criticism, it’s the need to highlight what critics bring to the arts. Historically, critics have found themselves on the sidelines. They’re the people who comment on the worth of a piece, its historical value, and the way it does or doesn’t fit into the larger culture. This means that there is often an antagonism between artists and critics. I have never agreed with this dynamic. I find “conflict of interest” in this sense to be yet another arbitrary rule of white supremacy. I’m not saying I want to be the best man at an actor’s wedding, or expect to find myself on the guestlist for a director’s daughter’s quinceañera. I merely suggest that a friendly conversation between an artist and a critic shouldn’t be reserved for press events or junkets.
We’re both in the art world, so why pretend not to see each other? How do we welcome new critics into a field with so many outdated rules?
Last December, I Zoom-ed with current Lab members Julia “Juju” Nieto and Rishi Mutalik, curious to know more about where they stood on where we belong in the ecosystem, how they see their relationships to artists, and the kind of art that made them want to become critics in the first place. Each of us living in different decades as BIPOC critics (I’m 34, Juju’s 19, and Rishi is 24), I was moved and often saddened to realize we’re after the same rainbow’s end, able to bond over Whitney Houston and Sondheim, while traversing a field where we are asked to justify our being alive.
Jose Solís (Rail): Imagine we’re in a museum right now. What piece of art stops you right in your tracks?
Julia “Juju” Nieto: A piece by a BIPOC artist.
Rail: How do you know a BIPOC artist made it?
Nieto: I find myself always inherently making stuff about my identity. Just because I think it's such an integral part of my life. And so I feel like with a lot of BIPOC artists that I know, a lot of their work does center around their identities. I feel like if it's something surrounding BIPOC life, I am going to be like, “Oh, that's probably done by a BIPOC artist.”
Rishi Mutalik: I think there's like a sense of freedom and joy and vitality that I would definitely, I think, be able to recognize.
Rail: Does this mean the white pieces aren’t about identity? Isn’t whiteness an identity?
Mutalik: It is identity, but I think there's a very specific way it's contextualized. As somebody who's grown up loving theater, film, television, all of it and is drawn to the works of brown and East Asian artists, the white work that I do respond to is the one that is aware of its identity and its privilege. But I think there's a recognition I have in like, I haven't seen this necessarily before, in the way it deserves to be seen. And the vitality kind of grabs me in a different way. If that makes sense.
Rail: Can you mention some of those works by white artists?
Mutalik: I was very struck when I saw What the Constitution Means to Me (2019) by Heidi Schreck for a few reasons. I think one thing that I felt that Schreck had done really beautifully is that she was telling a personal narrative about generational trauma and violence, brought on by the misogyny of this country. She was telling her own story and her family story so beautifully and specifically, but in the way she then expanded it, I felt like she allowed space to talk about, you know, the violence that has happened to Indigenous people and to women of color. She even ceded space in her show to a young Black woman to talk about her experience and to debate.
Rail: Loving Hollywood as a BIPOC is so terrible because we reach a point when we realize we’re not Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts, but their sidekicks, gardeners, thugs, maids, drug dealers etc. When did you have that moment?
Nieto: I've always been brought up like that. My dad is like, “You're not white, you're Colombian, you're Mexican.” But I also grew up in a really white town and I think I realized that I wasn’t perceived as white by my peers when we were talking about the civil rights movement in first grade. A white boy was like, “Oh, you wouldn't have been allowed to drink at the white fountain.” Ever since then, I think it's been like this process of kind of having to navigate being white-passing in a sense, but like, not really. I went to performing arts high school in downtown LA. And so there I was surrounded by all brown and Black people, and there I was not really Latino according to some of the kids. It was this weird juxtaposition.
Mutalik: I really became very aware of it once I started acting and auditioning specifically, like in a more professional context. I consider myself to be somebody who grew up obsessed with filmmakers and theater artists and writers. My dad grew up in India, and he loved Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, he loved old movie musicals. And that was how it was passed on to me. Growing up in a privileged, suburban white neighborhood I didn't necessarily feel that there were limitations. I thought I could be a Brad Pitt or a Brian d'Arcy James. It wasn't until I started acting as a teenager where I would go into roles and notice I was always going in for the nerd or the terrorist. I realized I loved something that did not love me back, you know what I mean? I would love to have a career like them where I could center my brownness.
Rail: Has knowing this robbed you of any joy? I wonder how anyone who’s not white wants to do anything given how the cards are stacked against us.
Nieto: It makes me so mad because I feel like I constantly have to police myself. I'm not allowed to make certain types of art. And my white counterparts get to do that.
Mutalik: How do you deal with that?
Nieto: I go to therapy. The Lab has been a huge source of joy for me, like, period.
Mutalik: Plug for Jose for the amazing work you're doing.
Rail: Thanks! I wonder how you deal with being told the art you’re interested in, or making, isn’t art.
Mutalik: I have tried not to think about that question a lot. I feel like I've been in spaces, especially going to a liberal arts school, that were much more, kind of, avant-garde in their sensibilities. And there was so much about, like, is this art? Is this not art? I think everybody has their form of expression. One thing I noticed in my program, and I've noticed in a lot of spaces, is I have all of these fraught questions that I'm constantly trying to negotiate when I go into the space. It's like, if I make this the way I want to make this, and I get pushback for it, what are the consequences of that? And if I make it and white people enjoyed it, did I do it wrong? Shouldn't it make them uncomfortable?
Rail: Why did you apply for the Lab?
Nieto: I think I've always wanted to be a critic. I've always been very critical of works that I see. I think that's the very judgmental Latina in me. But yeah, I just didn't know if my voice would be valued in a field that's very white. I've just had so many experiences where white folks have shut down my criticisms. And so just knowing that there was a space for only BIPOC people to just talk about art, and be vocal and vulnerable and honest, was just so attractive and appealing to me.
Mutalik: I've always had a lot to say similarly about the work, and been interested in the cultural and historical context of things. But I think in recent years, I really just fell in love with so many just non-white critics who were writing. Specifically, yourself, honestly, truly. Soraya McDonald and Angelica Bastién, so many people who have a perspective on the work that I haven't seen. And I'm realizing I have a perspective on the work I haven't seen, I haven't seen my voice in the critical establishment.
And then I also just think as an actor, too, I've really gotten to the point where I'm so sick of this mentality of villainizing critics or this idea that it's not an exchange. I think there's this very consumerist, capitalistic idea that the critic is only for a thumbs up or thumbs down. So we can sell tickets to this, you know what I mean?
Rail: You're halfway through right now? Where are you compared to where you were five weeks ago?
Nieto: I think your notes, really, on the first assignment that I did, they were just so nice. And just, I think the juxtaposition of being in college, and how all these professors come for me all the time. And then having your notes that are like, “good job,” make me feel so much more secure on where I stand as a writer, and where I can see myself going. I think I'm a lot less afraid. I think that's the better word.
Mutalik: The kind of conversations and the lessons and the things we've talked about, I just find them seeping into how I'm just living my life. And that's been very enjoyable. You know, while we've been doing this, I just made a SubStack and I have been doing my own newsletter, maybe we can plug it. And also I've been doing my podcast, and it's interesting. I found, I've been really busy and been writing a lot for those reasons. I feel like I have an idea of what my voice is.