Earlier this week, the Off-Broadway revival of Smokey Joe’s Café opened at Stage 42 to rave reviews. However, with the influx of great reviews came a bit of controversy. New York Times arts journalist Laura Collins-Hughes received major pushback from the theatre community after her review came out, including commentary on the way Alysha Umphress, one of the actresses in the show, looked in her costume. Read the excerpt in question below (and the full article here):
“Ms. Umphress, by the way, is bigger than the other women onstage, and the costume designer, Alejo Vietti, doesn’t seem to have known how to work with that, dressing her in an unnecessarily unflattering way. He does better with the skimpy, yet not overly revealing, pink fringe outfit Emma Degerstedt wears, and jiggles in, for the leering number “Teach Me How to Shimmy.”
Many members of the theatre community showed Umphress an outpouring of support, criticizing the way the journalist was comparing the way the women were wearing their costumes. However, Laura Collins-Hughes herself, had a different take. According to a few responses to tweets, she was not commenting on Ms. Umphress’s size, but the design of costumes themselves.
I will be honest. My first draft of this piece was scathing and awful towards Laura because I did not agree at all with the way she went about writing that specific passage. I eventually calmed down and realized letting that version of my thoughts be made public would have been unprofessional and unnecessary, not to mention no better than what she did. It is 2018 and women need to be supportive of each other now more than ever. So I gave her the benefit of the doubt. I took some time to think about how I wanted to approach this, because being a plus size journalist, I’d like to think that I have a unique perspective on this.
I am not knocking Laura Collins-Hughes or her opinion on the show, I want to make that abundantly clear. I am criticizing the words she used to express what her opinions are. I am flabbergasted that the phrase “Ms. Umphress, by the way, is bigger than the other women onstage” didn’t raise a single red flag to any editor over at the New York Times, especially in the times we are living in. Not only is this phrasing wildly unprofessional, it is also not necessary. There is no reason a remark could not have been made about the costumes in the show costumes without singling out a single cast member for her size. The way the passage is phrased seems like Collins-Hughes went out of her way to not only draw attention to Umphress’s size, but also to compare her to another actress in the show. Based on several of Collins-Hughes’s tweets, it seems that was not her intention. However, instead of addressing the issue head-on, or to Alysha Umphress directly, she instead took what I think is the cowardly route and responded to a few tweets to try to defend herself. She succeeds in trying to make her point across, but I think the point she is trying to convey and the point everyone else is making are vastly different. In all the tweets she responded to, she was focused on the fact that she was talking about the costume. The fact that she talked about the costume in a way that negatively portrayed the way Alysha wears it seems to go over her head.
Alysha Umphress had this to say regarding the New York Times article:
It's shocking to see a woman (especially a woman whose social media would suggest she is pro woman) body shame an actress who isn't size 0 and praise one that is. Her wording wasn't constructive. It was full on mean girl. It's 2018. We should be celebrating women's diversity in the arts, not shaming them, by the way, for being the biggest of the girls. And while the overall point was to malign the costume designer, her phrasing made me the sacrificial "fat" lamb. Truly disappointed and saddened by her ugly and pointless description. Also, I think I look pretty ferosh.
Collins-Hughes has yet to retort regarding this Twitter post. I think Alysha handled herself in a professional and eloquently said manner. I hope Collins-Hughes realizes that her article and the lack of a response to this post is dressing her in an unnecessarily unflattering way.
To see the remarkably talented Alysha Umphress and the cast of Smokey Joe’s Café, visit their website for tickets. Also, I would like to applaud whoever made the decision to pull the New York Times off of the website. Way to support your cast!