No #Yellowface Please, We’re British.

The recent case of The Printroom deciding to stage Howard Barker’s play In The Depths of Dead Love, a ‘fairytale’ play set in Imperial China with an entire cast of white actors is just an example of the industry deliberately ignoring the an important aspect of the debate. Since a wrong turn at The RSC sparked a hopeful change in the industry towards progress, more and more companies have had a hard look at their diversity opportunities. Yes, I am conflating diversity with progress. Don’t like it? It’s only going to get more beige. But this isn’t about diversity. It’s about totally ignoring one sector of the community completely and thinking it’s acceptable.

While, on the whole I am talking about Race and Sexuality because that’s my experience but I know full well that Diversity is a more inclusive tickbox.

Now, I’m not one for diversity for its own sake, but I am one for encouraging the theatre and film industry to be open for everyone.  For that end it needs to have visible role models for every child (and parent for that matter) to think that this is a viable industry to go into. If BAFTA can stipulate that by 2019 films looking for 2 awards (Outstanding British Film and Outstanding debut by a British writer, director or producer) they are going to have to have either diverse casts or crew (or both!) Of course this also started a debate about ‘Why can’t it be based on Talent alone?’ (Good, question, I’d like to know why it can’t be based on talent alone and not just giving the producer’s mates a job.) If this industry wants to have diverse stars of the future, with a diverse crew inclusive of everyone regardless of race, gender, sexuality and disability and economic background (I’m going to throw that one in there too); it’s going to have to start nurturing those people, encouraging the industry to give those people their first step on the ladder so they can gain the experience that other people have handed to them; those people just out of training who aren’t that well connected; whose uncles aren’t major directors; people who are just as passionate. Without a kick up the arse saying “BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME” no one will think that there are any diversity actors out there, no one will think there are diversity roles out there or diversity stories. Until the time when we say “Yeah, we’re sick of those stories, those single-issue stories, can I just play a mum and get on with it?” we have to encourage it to grow.

Why then does @WestEndWilma thinks that we can’t moan, now that directors are making ‘off the wall casting choices’?screen-shot-2016-12-22-at-17-39-09

The argument being “THERE’S A BLACK MAN PLAYING A DOG, STOP COMPLAINING ABOUT LACK OF DIVERSITY’. West End Wilma, this is not your stop, where do you get off?

By the way, the ‘small European man’ is none other than Saikat Ahamed, a British-born Pakistani actor with whom I had the pleasure to work in 1998.

Of course, it’s great that our stages are being filled with more diverse actors. But it’s not a one-in-one-out policy. If you’re making a play about China, make sure you have the cast to fill it. Apparently there weren’t enough black actors 35 years ago to make Dreamgirls in the West End. SO THEY DIDN’T MAKE IT UNTIL THERE WERE. For years the Black  acting community had been  nurturing Black talent in their own theatre companies that bloomed to counter the lack of roles for young black actors to play.

screen-shot-2016-12-22-at-18-40-06

The East Asian acting community is younger, 15 years ago I could count on 1 hand who was going to turn up to the castings with me. Now, it’s a growing community of actors, writers, directors and theatre companies that (way before the The Orphan of Zhao debate peaked in 2010) have strengthened themselves to bring to light every time the film or theatre has chosen to be lazy and not look for East Asian actors for roles that specify it. Because it’s not right. Because the only time we think of East Asian roles in television or film is as Triads, Takeaways and Tarts. The opportunity to challenge the perception must be first given to those that don’t have the opportunity. Nurture that talent. Let them know that in 15 years time, seeing East Asian faces in the West end will be the norm and that they will be taken on merit. Until then, let’s push for diversity. Yes we probably will have a period of ‘tokenism’ that happened in the US, but that changed and it became the norm (well, I’m still not sure about 2 Broke Girls, it might just be shit comedy). British writing can take from that and form its own version of visibility.

Is it still about the tickbox? Will I be offended if I am given a role in a film or play because they needed a Gay or Asian in the cast or crew? Nope. I’ll just learn the lines, collect the paycheque and mark it on  my CV. Will it make writers’ work be more bland? Or will it force them to think outside their box? “I don’t know how to write for a wheelchair user?”. Then research it. Don’t let your lack of ability stop you. That might sound like a familiar trope.

Diversity hasn’t diminished the storyline in Rogue One, why should diversity be a threat to the quality in the industry. As an example, Gabby Wong plays an X-Wing pilot in it. She’s a perfect illustration how opportunity grows talent. After working for years in smaller stages, she landed a role at the RSC, then, in the West-End in Dr Faustus with Kit Harrington and finally in the Star Wars saga. That’s how you nurture talent. But I’m not saying that Gabby was a tickbox. She’s also very good.

West End Wilma asks us to “…mix it up and create great shows. We are all members of the human race, regardless of race, gender, sexuality or whatever!” Great! Yes! Lets! Let’s mix it up for 2017. But let not that mix be all white. We need some heroes.

 

 

Just in case you didn’t know, Jamie Zubairi is a mixed-race, Anglo-Malay actor-artist who loves a good hyphen.
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7 thoughts on “No #Yellowface Please, We’re British.

  1. I understand that British East Asians what to see plays that speak to and reflect their own sense of identity, and that there are currently too few such plays. I also understand that British East Asian actors want to perform in parts that reflect their own sense of self.

    However, I think it’s unreasonable to demand that every play set in China, or every play by a Chinese playwright, be produced and cast to reflect the identity politics of British diaspora Chinese.

    The critics of this production seem to be saying “represent China on our terms, or don’t represent it at all”.

    Race is ultimately a social construct, any idea of race-based social identity is specific to a particular time and place. For example, people in premodern China simply did not understand the world or their own places in it in terms of race. It’s completely anachronistic to describe the roles in a play set in ancient China as “East Asian roles”. (Of course, there’s nothing wrong with taking an anachronistic approach to a play, but it’s unreasonable to insist that everybody do so.)

    Even non-diaspora Chinese growing up in China today do not have the same sense of racial identity as diaspora Chinese, simply because they have no experience of being a member of an ethnic minority.

    To insist that every production of a play by a Chinese playwright in the UK have a fully East Asian cast is tantamount to asserting that all plays by Chinese authors are about race (in the sense of racial identity espoused by British East Asians). This is nonsense. It will not, in many cases, lead to good or progressive outcomes. In many cases it will lead to exoticism and racial existentialism, and distort the meanings intended by the authors of the plays.

    Another outcome will be that fewer plays set in China / by Chinese playwrights will be produced. Am-dram societies, local theater groups, student theatre groups etc. will often not be able to field a fully East Asian cast.

    As to Howard Barker’s play, there is a long tradition in European literature of using China as a backdrop for fairy tales, fantastic narratives etc. Why shouldn’t they produce a play in this tradition? Just because it doesn’t speak to British East Asians’ sense of identity doesn’t mean it “erases” anything.

    • Until there is proportionate representation, where we feel that we aren’t being erased, please do not presume to know how it feels when every opportunity that comes up that has a person of colour in it is played by a white person, never mind the rare East Asian role. But yes, let’s have misrepresentation instead shall we? Is that what you’re after? Thanks for explaining your position, who ever you are.

      How do you know it will lead to exoticism? The status quo is already at exoticsm. Diversity is about visibility and against exoticism. Change your thinking.

      Yes, you seem to be another person who thinks that all PoC plays are single issue. When Chinese writers have certainly other issues to contend with other than race, and East Asian actors are dying to play a mum or the best friend or the boyfriend without the issue of race rearing its head. In this case Howard Barker and the long tradition of European theatre. It’s backward thinking to think that they can still call on the long traditions to produce the play. What was the word you used? Anachronistic? Europe is not just European any longer. How amazing would it be to see his play, set in China, played by the people he’d written about? How fantastic would that be? How many different levels would that play cross then? A play not written about race, played by Chinese people being seen for what they are? Rather than the audience having to think “I’m looking at Stella Gonet, she’s not Chinese, playing a Chinese person” and having to cross that every time that actor opens her mouth. But what do I know?

      You say another outcome might be fewer plays being produced? But when people finally see the range of East Asian actors out there they’ll want to see them in other things, if they’re good, they’ll become another face that theatre will produce. Benedict Wong pour l’example. 2 plays back to back in the West End and Hampstead before more work in America.

      Lets break down those social contructs shall we? Enough of the Whitesplaining of Chinese social history to an East Asian who grew up in East Asia. Stop theorising out of fear, let’s get on with diversity.

      • Since you don’t find my theoretical arguments convincing, here’s a practical argument:

        I was involved in translating a play by a Japanese playwright about the effects of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, tsunami and reactor leak on the lives of children in Fukushima prefecture. The author made the translation and performance rights available for free because they wanted the play to be performed internationally in schools etc. in order to raise awareness about the issue among the widest possible audience.

        If schools had been reluctant to perform the play with non-Japanese actors, out of fear of being accused of “yellowface”, then in practice in most (all?) cases they would not have been able to perform the play at all. The author’s intention of raising awareness would have been thwarted.

        If they had performed the play in those cases where possible to do so with an “East Asian” cast (which in practice would have been a very small number of cases), then it may well have communicated the impression to children that the issues being raised were somehow only relevant to East Asians (and that all East Asians are somehow interchangeable), and undermined our efforts to make the play relatable to local children.

        Obviously, this is a different scenario to the Howard Barker play; but high profile controversies such as this one tend to have a wider impact than just professional theatre. They may also have “chilling effects” which silence some voices, particularly if one seeks to establish generalised taboos about casting rather than considering each case on its own merits.

      • Your play will never be produced in schools. Not anymore at least. Not because of casting or the lack of East Asian kids in rural areas but because of funding. Arts in education in the UK has been slashed, the first to go is theatre. But that’s a whole other issue for another blog!

        I’m afraid you’re out of touch with communicating the impression to young people. Yellow Earth theatre produces east Asian plays or even plays about East Asians written by non East Asian writers (because it is possible!) and produced a young person’s play I performed in, for audiences between 7 and 14. Until I witnessed it myself I never expected children to be as empathic as they were, they saw themselves as the young Chinese actor being scolded by the angry dad, they were with him battling dragons on Chinese new year. Them and Us is learned. Children aren’t stupid. Yes the cast were from Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Mainland China but it didn’t matter as what was important was how different we all looked. The BEA kids that weren’t sat in front found themselves right there, any closer and they’d be in the show. It’s heart bursting. The story about family, parent-child relationships is universal and kids get it. The folkloric lion dancing not just for colour but integral to the plot.

        Currently because of funding YET are they only East Asian company doing regular work. Perhaps you could take your translation to them to produce and they could take it to schools they have relationships with?

    • Plays that speak to and reflect any minority ethnic’s sense of identity would be great, but I think you’ve misunderstood the issue here, it’s an issue of representation: the importance of championing the under represented and of established venues committing to doing that. The issue at hand is about the BEA community but I also hope you realise in essence it’s a far greater thing, so I hope (unlike what you’ve said in your statement) that you realise this is more than just BEA actors (which don’t just consist of Chinese actors FYI) demanding for jobs, it’s been heartening to see the industry as a whole (not just the BEA members) rallying to support.

      To produce any play inspired or set in another culture and not involve anyone from that culture in any part of that process is exoticism and appropriation (and creatively negligent to boot). Using China as a fantastical setting may have been ‘theatre tradition’ hundreds of years ago when it was indeed a far flung land (and when colonising, slavery and other such practices were also fashionable) but we’re no longer in those un-enlightened days, you have to realise that doing so is the epitome of exoticising China and East Asians! What we’re saying is ‘represent China sensitively and with respect, our heritage is not a plaything’.

      Furthermore, I’m sure you must’ve been unaware, but in the recent couple years there have been many amazing fully BEA plays. I don’t feel that has contributed to any feelings of ‘racial existentialism ‘ on my part nor any BEA I know. I’m unsure how many plays written by Chinese playwrights or set in China you know, but of the literal hundreds I’ve read, casting a fully BEA cast wouldn’t harm the author’s meaning (and by your argument, how could it if race is just a social construct?).

      It has been stated repeatedly this year that the British stage is horribly un diverse. Even by your arguments, there is absolutely no justifying the all Caucasian cast. If race is really such a nominal thing in your view, why are you not pushing for more BAME to be cast in this play, why support such un diverse casting? Because that’s the point of the issue here. Statistics reflect that BAME in this industry do not have enough opportunities, and no wonder, if they’re to be excluded from even the plays about them! Until the point where race really is a nominal thing to the whole industry, when any BAME may truly play any part, we need to fiercely protect BAME representation. Demographics show more than enough BAME performers out there so lack of good performers is not an excuse. On the contrary, there’ve been scientific studies showing that an employer almost always hires an employee that is like them in race and gender (this is across all industries) and this bias is subconcious, as long as the top jobs in the arts are dominated by white males (and like the studies show this won’t change until we make it change), there will always be a bias towards white male protagonists and always a bias towards Caucasian casting. You may not have realised this, but this was what you were evidencing when you spoke so vehemently against BEA cast in Chinese parts but said nothing of an all Caucasian casting. This is why we need to speak out against lack of minority representation, because the situation will not change by itself.

  2. Plays that speak to and reflect any minority ethnic’s sense of identity would be great, but I think you’ve misunderstood the issue here, it’s an issue of representation: the importance of championing the under represented and of established venues committing to doing that. The issue at hand is about the BEA community but I also hope you realise in essence it’s a far greater thing, so I hope (unlike what you’ve said in your statement) that you realise this is more than just BEA actors (which don’t just consist of Chinese actors FYI) demanding for jobs, it’s been heartening to see the industry as a whole (not just the BEA members) rallying to support.

    To produce any play inspired or set in another culture and not involve anyone from that culture in any part of that process is exoticism and appropriation (and creatively negligent to boot). Using China as a fantastical setting may have been ‘theatre tradition’ hundreds of years ago when it was indeed a far flung land (and when colonising, slavery and other such practices were also fashionable) but we’re no longer in those un-enlightened days, you have to realise that doing so is the epitome of exoticising China and East Asians! What we’re saying is ‘represent China sensitively and with respect, our heritage is not a plaything’.

    Furthermore, I’m sure you must’ve been unaware, but in the recent couple years there have been many amazing fully BEA plays. I don’t feel that has contributed to any feelings of ‘racial existentialism ‘ on my part nor any BEA I know. I’m unsure how many plays written by Chinese playwrights or set in China you know, but of the literal hundreds I’ve read, casting a fully BEA cast wouldn’t harm the author’s meaning (and by your argument, how could it if race is just a social construct?).

    It has been stated repeatedly this year that the British stage is horribly un diverse. Even by your arguments, there is absolutely no justifying the all Caucasian cast. If race is really such a nominal thing in your view, why are you not pushing for more BAME to be cast in this play, why support such un diverse casting? Because that’s the point of the issue here. Statistics reflect that BAME in this industry do not have enough opportunities, and no wonder, if they’re to be excluded from even the plays about them! Until the point where race really is a nominal thing to the whole industry, when any BAME may truly play any part, we need to fiercely protect BAME representation. Demographics show more than enough BAME performers out there so lack of good performers is not an excuse. On the contrary, there’ve been scientific studies showing that an employer almost always hires an employee that is like them in race and gender (this is across all industries) and this bias is subconcious, as long as the top jobs in the arts are dominated by white males (and like the studies show this won’t change until we make it change), there will always be a bias towards white male protagonists and always a bias towards Caucasian casting. You may not have realised this, but this was what you were evidencing when you spoke so vehemently against BEA cast in Chinese parts but said nothing of an all Caucasian casting. This is why we need to speak out against lack of minority representation, because the situation will not change by itself.

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