Tracy Letts vs. Joseph Jefferson

Keep the faith, Chicago theater lovers. If your trust in the integrity of Steppenwolf and Tracy Letts was in any way shaken by the tortured, execrable sitcom CBS rendered from their Chicago-based stage comedy Superior Donuts (despite their ultimate lack of involvement in the final product, save residuals), Letts wants you to rest assured that the old gang is still as scrappy and pugnacious as ever!

In a recent interview with the Chicago Tribune about his new play Linda Vista, Letts caused Oklahoma fracking-level earthquakes in the theater community by announcing that the Joseph Jefferson Awards Committee, the city’s most august—and really only consequential—theater-awards-giving body, would not be given free tickets to his show to consider for their trophies.

In the social media flurry that followed, there was plenty of speculation as to what might have motivated this seemingly out-of-nowhere, very public cold shoulder, especially from such a lauded, feted, relatively blessed artist. We can only speculate, since the day before the Trib’s Q&A ran, Letts declined to grant the Reader an interview on Linda Vista, relaying through the Steppenwolf publicity office that he didn’t appreciate our recent review of CBS’s Donuts (in particular, the label “sellout” was cited as a bridge too far).

This isn’t Letts’s first swipe at the Reader, of course, as his reputation as a north-side enfant terrible reached its high-water mark in 2001 in a legendary confrontation with critic Jack Helbig outside A Red Orchid Theatre. As Letts recalled to Tony Adler in a 2007 Chicago magazine feature, he was on the sidewalk before the opening night of his play Bug when he saw Helbig, who’d trashed both the original production of Letts’s Killer Joe as well as a revival of the same play in the Reader’s pages, entering the theater.

“I couldn’t restrain myself . . . I said, ‘Jack, you fucking horse’s cock!’ He turned and he looked at me and I said, ‘You here to review this? Write that down, you son of a bitch! Fucking horse’s cock!’”

Fightin’ words to be sure, and authentically ballsy given the power that critics can wield; Letts was nobody’s untouchable icon back then. There’s little doubt that this popular anecdote helped define pre-Pulitzer Letts as old-school Chicago tough in the public consciousness. But because these days post-angry-young-man Letts has a designated PR team to whom he can outsource rage at the Reader, let us consider instead his more surgical and stately man-of-arts-and-letters reinvention of the classic Steppenwolf gritty grunting fearlessness in the Tribune.

Here’s an excerpt from Letts’s Q&A with Chris Jones, and while the first question is in no way germane to the Jeffs-ban controversy, it still warrants inclusion, because it tees up surely one of the most bizarre, nakedly manipulative conversational transitions in the entire recorded history of access-entertainment journalism.

Q: You’re working with the director Dexter Bullard on this first one.

A: It’s great to be back with Dexter. Both Anna [Shapiro] and I agreed, at almost exactly the same moment, that she was not the right director for the show. Dexter has the right sensibility.

Q: Very good then.

A: You’re not going to ask me about the Jeff Committee?

Q: Should I ask you about the Jeff Committee? OK, what about the Jeff Committee?

A: We are not inviting them to “Linda Vista.” I asked Steppenwolf to do this for me, and they agreed, and all of my collaborators agreed, because I asked them first. I am asking the [Joseph Jefferson Awards Committee] to pay for their tickets. They ask for, like, 150 seats on Friday and Saturday nights. That’s a lot of money, especially for theaters smaller than Steppenwolf. The Tonys are an organ of the American Theatre Wing. The Academy does a tremendous amount for the film industry. The Jeffs are more like a club to get free tickets. The Saints do a whole lot more for Chicago theater, and they have to usher. The Jeffs need to do some service, give away some scholarships.

Q: Is this to do with you not getting a lot of award recognition from them in the past?

A: They don’t like me and I don’t like them. [Eds. note: Letts has been nominated three times as a actor and three as a playwright, winning best new work for August: Osage County.] Plus, it’s a sea of white faces. Our theater community has changed. The Jeff Committee hasn’t changed or diversified. Our community deserves a better service organization.

And . . . scene.

Beyond the swaggering cinematic spectacle of Letts grabbing the wheel and completely taking control of the interview, this uncannily “on-brand” moment also represents a legitimately new chapter for Tracy Letts. Though many journalistic profiles of the man over the years have given us the artist talking about himself, his work, his family, and his Steppenwolf family, he almost never uses his celebrity platform to air his sociopolitical agenda, preferring to keep a relatively private, Switzerland-like persona. Most of the social media reaction to the interview has centered on Letts’s calling out the Jeff committee as a famously alabaster affair. Whiteness in Chicago theater has been an especially heated topic in the past few years, as social media has democratized the community’s ability to discuss the long-simmering topic publicly, but the conversation has mainly centered around producers and theaters who don’t consider actors of color when selecting and casting projects. Letts’s taking up this segment of the cause on behalf of the community was heartily welcomed by many, and his point is a valid and important one.

But what’s most interesting about this gutsy decision to go public with his beef with the Jeffs’ institutional whiteness and take serious action to hold them accountable is the order in which he lays out his grievances, as carefully transcribed by Jones.

Again, in this order, here are Letts’s stated chief complaints about the Jeff Awards committee:

1. They take up too many free seats.
2. They should do something nice for us once in a while.
3. They don’t like me.
4. They’re too white.

While clocking in at number four on his shit list, Letts’s wokeness is still a siren call to a sleeping community, and his newfound interest in activism puts him in a category alongside other Pulitzer-winning dramatists past who shared his passion for social justice issues.

For example, in a similarly courageous act of defiant protest in 1936, Elmer Rice resigned his position as the New York City regional director of the WPA’s Federal Theater Project when the government censored a documentary play about Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia by banning portrayals of heads of state on American stages. Sidney Kingsley’s urban slum drama Dead End was so effective in dramatizing the public health horrors of American ghetto life that Eleanor Roosevelt used it to draw attention to the cause, hastening the passage of the Wagner Housing Act, which improved living conditions for low-income families in public housing. Speaking of the Roosevelts, one of FDR’s trusted speechwriters and occasional advisers was three-time Pulitzer-winning playwright Robert Sherwood, who’s credited with coining Roosevelt’s oft-used description of America as an “arsenal of democracy.” Thornton Wilder famously aided refugees fleeing Nazi Germany and Austria by providing affidavits of support to help them obtain visas, then arranged for stateside accommodations and greeted them at a New York dock with $500. Though for the most part publicly apolitical like Letts, William Saroyan also raised money for anti-fascist European writers on the run from Hitler. And of course Arthur Miller was fined, convicted, and stripped of his passport for his Lettsian resolve not to crumble in the frightening face of the Jeff Committee of the 1950s, the House UnAmerican Activities Committee.

Letts is right that the theater community has changed, taking major strides in the areas of diversity and inclusion. What’s more, Steppenwolf has helped lead the charge, inviting into its storied ensemble several outstanding artists of color in the past decade or so. Hopefully in time this will help correct the company’s steadfast adherence to the tradition of the magical negro, the nonwhite, mystically wizened outsider character who enriches the lives of the Caucasian protagonists in the foreground. Letts and his Pulitzer-winning ensemble brother Bruce Norris have both leaned heavily on this device in crucial moments in their careers, and high-profile Steppenwolf shows like 2014’s Broadway tryout of Airline Highway (out of whose 23-member local cast only six were included in the New York staging) and last winter’s well-received productions of Lucas Hnath’s The Christians have also indulged in this practice. But now that Letts is expanding his actor-playwright hyphenate to include altruist, this long-standing matter of crass tokenism will hopefully soon come to be resolved.

In a 2013 Daily Beast profile of Letts that detailed the film adaptation of August: Osage County, Letts called movie awards season “beyond frustrating. Man, this obsession with the Academy Awards in particular, who fucking cares? It drives me nuts.” (Although in the same paragraph he says of the A:OC movie, “I hope it wins everything.”)

I know I for one miss this daringly awards-ambivalent version of Letts, and hopefully now that he’s living his truth about the Jeffs, we can have him back. While humbly accepting his 2013 Tony Award for best actor, Letts famously concluded by saying. “We are the ones who say it to their faces.” It’s a relief to know that next fall this tell-it-like-it-is tough guy won’t be awkwardly, insincerely accepting the Jeff for best new work, trying his diplomatic damnedest not to look a gift horse in the cock.