Margo Jefferson, who has been contributing critiques and theatre-opinion pieces to the New York Times for several years, has been chosen as the paper’s Sunday theatre columnist to replace Vincent Canby, who died at age 76 on Oct. 15.
Jefferson told Playbill On-Line (Oct. 18) she would write one Sunday column per month, while continuing as critic at large and contributing her bi-weekly piece to the second page of the Times' culture section. Jefferson, an African-American woman, first started writing for the paper the same year Canby became its Sunday critic, 1993. At the time, the theatre section had a seemingly homogenous, white male “voice.” (Since then, Anita Gates was added as one of the third-string critics, alongside Lawrence Van Gelder, D.J.R. Bruckner and David DeWitt). Her theatre criticism and book reviews earned Jefferson a 1995 Pulitzer.
Ben Brantley remains the Times’ chief theatre critic, with Bruce Weber in the second slot. The Sunday column is traditionally a mix of criticism and thoughtful essays or second-looks. Mr. Canby’s last Sunday column was several months ago, according to Times cultural editor John Darnton.
Mr. Canby, who died of cancer at age 76, contributed his reviews and articles to The Times for 35 years and in the last decade was chief theatre critic and Sunday theatre columnist in the years following the 1993 departure of chief critic Frank Rich. In his Times obituary, written by colleague Janet Maslin, it was observed that Mr. Canby, who was most known as a film critic, "opposed a tendency of the theatre to make itself more like film."
The paper reported he was also a playwright (End of the War, After All, The Old Flag) and novelist ("Living Quarters," "Unnatural Scenery") and worked for the trade paper Variety before coming to The New York Times in 1965. Mr. Canby was a Chicago native raised in Lake Forest, IL. He was a Dartmouth graduate and never married. A memorial is being planned for the last week in November in New York City.
In 1993, Mr. Canby became Sunday theatre critic of The New York Times, writing longer essay-reviews that appeared after the reviews of the chief drama critic had run. Producers look hopefully to the Sunday followup column for good marks from the writer and, possibly, hyperbolic praise to lift for advertising. The respected British critic Benedict Nightingale held the post for a year in the early 1980s. In 1994, Mr. Canby became chief theatre critic; he returned to the Sunday position in 1996.
Columnist Jefferson is a Brandeis (B.A.) and Columbia University (M.S.) alumnus and has taught journalism at New York University. Not shy about tackling potentially controversial subject matter, Jefferson’s essays have weighed in on such topics as ebonics, “race ennui” and black feminism. She received an Alumni Achievement Award from Brandeis in 1995.
At an institute run by Anna Deavere Smith this past summer, Jefferson was developing a short performance piece with Francesca Harper, former principal dancer with the Frankfurt Ballet, a current cast-member of Fosse, and Jefferson's niece. They anticipate performing the work in February for a couple of weekends at the Cherry Lane Theatre's Alternative Space.
-- By David Lefkowitz
and Kenneth Jones