Last night in London, I protested at the Print Room with British East Asian theatre professionals, their friends, and their allies from the wider theatre industry. This is the first time that British East Asians have actually staged a physical protest against a theatre (unlike the US, there was no equivalent Miss Saigon protest back in the day) and it was the first in a long time by any form of group seeking equal representation. So it has been hailed as landmark event in wider British debates on diversity.
The protest was organised by Andrew Keates (who is directing the UK premiere of David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish at the Park Theatre) in response to the casting announcement of Howard Barker’s latest play In the Depths of Dead Love. This revealed a solely white cast for a play set in ancient China, complete with Chinese character names, bowing actions, emperor/tea/silk references, but, of course, it was just an allegory, a fable, for universal human experience (sound familiar?) As Andrew said:
“I had just got through the second day of auditions for Chinglish and it was amazing, people who had me literally in stitches … so many talented actors came in for it and I came home and I saw the casting notice for this … and it didn’t compute. I was really concerned. I emailed Anda Winters [the Artistic Director of the Print Room] and didn’t get a reply … and I thought, a‘No, this isn’t going to be another … minority protest that will be ignored. I will be the white guy that stands up and says, ‘No this is wrong. … To see this theatre clawing back to the 1800s, I just found it deeply offensive and cruel to this community and I had to stand up because it was the right thing to do.”
I won’t go into the nuances of the debate here – you can see all our writings on this at the chronology being established by Anna Chen at her website, but suffice to say that the Print Room has been highly defensive, offensive, and unrepentant in its response. It has failed to engage, and Howard Barker’s interview with The Guardian today shows his level of disconnection from the debates at work.
The physicality and camaraderie of everyone turning up made the debate very hard to ignore. It was covered on BBC London, and has been referenced in every review so far (the reviews for the play are generally pretty bad, although the response to the protest’s concerns have been more mixed). An online Thunderclap organised by Amy Tasker also gathered 610 participants with a social media reach of over 870,000 people. It was a multicultural protest involving people who were united in their concern about racism and we even had random members of the public join us when they found out what it was about. There was a real sense that this was a protest that affected the wider theatre community, that the demand for equal opportunities in all senses is growing, and that we need to support one another so that eventually those in the ‘minority’ become the ‘majority.’ Indeed, the Print Room seems out of step with wider theatrical currents in the UK, something they can currently afford as a privately funded theatre, but as Kumiko Mendl (Artistic Director of Yellow Earth Theatre) said, “Not if they want to survive. Theatre in general isn’t going to survive if it doesn’t keep up, if it doesn’t speak to young people and reflect diversity.”
The majority of the protest was polite and peaceful. Papergang Theatre bought us sushi snacks (well it was an Asian protest)! Ashley Alymann united us with his home crafted yellow daisy badges, there was hot tea and coffee, everyone turned out in force, including British stars Gemma Chan and Katie Leung, and, as Daniel York put it, “It was one of the most meaningful and moving nights of my life. I mean I didn’t know Kublai Khan was going to turn up and lead the sing song.”
Indeed, Doctor Strange’s British star, Benedict Wong, created a fantastic Print Room protest Spotify play list. He led the singing of some witty riffs, such as Always Look on the White Side of Life, and the crowd favourite of ‘Give East A Chance’ which you can see below, along with our regular chant of ‘What do we want? East Asian parts. When do we want it? Now!’ You can watch them here and here (I don’t have the upgraded blog plan!)
Wong described how he had worked with three of the actors on stage before but “it was a real shame because there is such a wealth of talent here and what we lack is opportunity and to gain experience and for us to show our instincts. It’s erasure and just very short sighted from a very few individuals. … We are on the right side of artistic history.” So many of the actors there said the same thing, such as Joyce Veheary, “We’re not allowed to play ourselves, we’re not allowed to the table to be ourselves, let alone play Sandra Bloggs in any theatre production.”
As you’ll have seen there were some awesome and witty banners, including my personal favourite created by Tina Chiang in response to the existential crisis that she was now experiencing as a result of this play’s casting.
“It’s given me an identity crisis because according to Howard Barker China doesn’t exist and ancient China is a mythical place. So it’s just given me a bit of an identity crisis because I don’t know if I am real or not. So I am hoping by holding the sign some people will actually see it and explain to me whether I exist” (Tina Chiang).
I created a protest leaflet with my long-time friend and academic collaborator Ashley Thorpe, and with help we managed to distribute around a thousand of these to local residents, workers, anyone who was interested, the critics and most of the audience. We got shouted at for being silly, told we were pathetic, had them thrust back in our faces, and hastily shoved into pockets. But we did have some great conversations with a few audience members before they saw the play, turned a few critics around who initially thought we were stupid, and ultimately got it published as part of The Telegraph’s review.
We weren’t allowed inside the building (they had heavies on, because of course there’s nothing worse than angry Asian people not behaving submissively) and we weren’t allowed to buy a programme, possibly, maybe, because it still has that ‘set in ancient China’ line in it and they’re waiting for the next print run where that gets removed?!
However, it all kicked off when the audience came out and responded to the protestors.
Daniel York has already written about how he was nearly spat on and abused as people left the theatre. Protestors were told they were wrong, stupid, childish, silly and ‘shouldn’t be offended’ because the play and the production ‘weren’t racist’ and it didn’t reference China (people we know who have seen it have said that the script has been edited). Although this largely came over as “white men of privilege telling minorities how they should feel” (Kevin Shen) some of these responses were shared by East Asian audience members. Go figure. Blanche Marvin came over in a fur coat (you couldn’t write this stuff, really) and told us we were all racists for not allowing white people to play these roles, that it was colour-blind casting, that we didn’t understand, and ended up in an angry exchange with Kevin Shen who told her “I am almost only cast in East Asian parts because the British theatre community rarely sees us as non-East Asians and colour-blind casting should work both ways.”
Ashley and I got harangued by a woman who told us it was just the playwright using his friends (because, you know, nepotism is totally ok in the professional theatre world). When we pointed out that this denied all these professional actors equal opportunities she told us that ‘not everything has to be equal’. Apparently. And because I am friends with the author of ‘that Chinglish play, that says it all’ about me. I think she was confusing David with Andrew, either that or that David has an international reputation for being a troublemaker. Interestingly though, even the hard line defenders couldn’t say that if this were set in Africa, with characters with African names and white actors playing those characters, that it would be ok. Which just goes to show how fair game East Asia is in the UK compared to Black British and South Asian communities.
On a more positive note though, friends of the actors came out to speak to the protestors, and although they started out by saying how wrong the protest was, they ended up having some good, if heated, conversations as they tried to understand the protestors’ perspectives. Some audience members also said it made no sense being set in China and that they felt we were right, ‘They should’ve just said it was set in Scotland or England or something.’ We also got some supportive responses from critics and audience members we had spoken to earlier.
So, all in all, a great night, a landmark event. I think, I hope, that this will be the end of yellowface in British theatre – although we thought that would be the end of it after The Orphan of Zhao controversy. I am hopeful that anyone mounting a theatre production using East Asian settings will think carefully about how they cast it. But what I really want is for us to make this so toxic that not only will the wider theatre profession wake up and be more critical about what they are doing (the critics are getting there on this), but that white actors start turning yellowface opportunities down.
— Marcus, sorry, Amanda.