Congratulations and praise is rolling in for Chris Jones, the Tribune drama critic who just won the George Jean Nathan Award for drama criticism. The announcement of Jones’s award hails his “panoramic understanding of contemporary playwriting and directing, and adds that his “knowledge of Chicago theater history is especially deep.” Critic Michael Riedel of the New York Post offered a salute reflecting the times we live in.
It’s “well deserved,” said Riedel, for Jones is a “first-rate drama critic in an era where critics are fearing for their livelihoods.” Which is to say—what? That most critics in terror do second-rate work?
And most critics never win the Nathan Award. So now do you have job security? I asked Jones.
“No,” he said. It was an absurd idea and it made him laugh. “No.” He laughed some more. “Hah, hah. Ahhh.” As I held the phone he got hold of himself. “Being first-rate doesn’t make you not fear for your life. Being second-rate doesn’t mean . . . ” He trailed off, possibly because the larger point was so obvious why bother trying to state it precisely? If you fear for your livelihood it doesn’t mean you’re first-rate or second-rate. It just means you still have a job to lose.
One of the reasons a lot of first-rate Tribune writers took buyouts a few weeks ago is that the paper hadn’t given raises in five years. I asked Jones if he’d be getting one now. “I’ve been well supported by the Tribune,” he replied, his way of not saying yes but acknowledging he’s high-maintenance. “I have the ability to cover shows around the world—particularly on Broadway,” he said. “I’ve been given the resources I need—I wouldn’t stay otherwise. It’s not free to go to New York. While I stay in cheap little crappy hotels wherever I can, it’s still—” Where do you stay in New York? I asked. “The Hampton Inn usually.”
Jones told me he means to cover theater for the Tribune the same way Blair Kamin covers architecture—as a Chicago voice commenting on a global art to a national audience. Stick to Chicago and “you just get parochial,” he says, and never becoming parochial is one of what he calls his two “bottom lines.” Yet the other’s at the far extreme. Chicago theater “is like an ecosystem,” he says. “The good stuff bubbles up. You don’t get a Michael Shannon unless you see him at Red Orchid. The moment they say don’t cover those small theaters is the moment I’m gone.”
Jones, 52, was an academic, an associate dean at DePaul who wrote on the side when the Tribune hired him in 2002. He became chief drama critic in 2005, succeeding Michael Phillips, who moved over to film. He’s the second Chicagoan to win the George Jean Nathan Award; the first, in 2000, was the Reader’s Albert Williams, whose work was hailed as “incisive, thorough, confident in the intelligence of its readers.”
George Jean Nathan was a famous critic and editor who died in 1958, leaving behind instructions to create the award that his estate sustains. It’s a prize that casts a wide net, considering reviews, essays, even books; and though most years there’s one recipient—chosen by the heads of the English departments of Cornell (Nathan’s alma mater), Princeton, and Yale— in 2015 there are two. Jones will split the $10,000 prize with Princeton professor Brian Eugenio Herrera, honored for his book Latin Numbers: Playing Latino in Twentieth-Century U.S. Popular Performance.
I asked Jones if he knew Herrera’s work. “No, I don’t, to be honest,” Jones said, “but I’m honored to be with him nevertheless.”