Category Archives: Casting

Protest Front Page, Centre Stage

The protest I was involved in made the front page of The Stage this week. This is fantastic news and congratulations to everyone involved/everyone quoted here. If any theatre casts white people in East Asian roles again, they have to know that this will happen, that there are consequences. Some huge steps forward are being made, but what we really want now are not just East Asians in East Asian roles, but in ethnically non-specific ones… in real colourblind casting.



Yellowface Protest at the Print Room

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.

Yellowface publications (open access)

Before Christmas, in response to the Print Room controversy over the casting of Howard Barker’s latest play, I mentioned that I would make my publications on yellowface (on the RSC’s The Orphan of Zhao) open access. It took a bit longer than I expected but ta-da! These are the accepted versions (so they are PDFs, not journal final copies). Please remember that these are copyrighted publications and any quotations must be attributed to me/Ashley and me.

The Editorial I co-authored with Dr Ashley Thorpe can be downloaded here:

My piece ‘Asian Mutations’ on Yellowface in contemporary British theatre can be downloaded here:



The Orphan of Zhao Controversy Special Issue

Two years ago as part of British East Asian Artists, I was involved in a protest against the casting of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Orphan of Zhao (see blog entries here and here and here). Ashley Thorpe (Royal Holloway) and myself have spent the last year or so putting together a Special Issue of Contemporary Theatre Review on the controversy. It basically uses the controversy to discuss racial politics and casting, and questions whether or not British theatre is as inclusive as it likes to think it is. In it, we have an editorial, our own individual contributions, plus amazing articles from Broderick Chow, Angela Pao and Sita Thomas. The issue also includes an interview with the RSC, an interview with two members of British East Asian Artists, as well as the formal statements released by all parties at the height of the controversy.

In addition to this, there is an open access site that includes Ashley’s reflections on the production’s marketing, Daphne Lei’s analysis of the La Jolla/A.C.T. production in the U.S. (which was cast with all Asian Americans), a clip of Anna Chen’s brilliant poem Yellowface and Daniel York’s absolutely incredible film The Orphan of Zhao Redux. These are all available at

It has been a long and at times stressful road to put this together, but we are all exceptionally proud of this special issue which is the first to address British East Asian representation in theatre. Huge thanks must go to every contributor and to every actor and performer who was involved in making this happen.

Just because it is so brilliant, I am including the short film here too…


British East Asian Artists Press Release

In response to a letter written by the BBC to an East Asian student asking why there was such a lack of representation of BEAs on our screens, BEAA has released the following press release and open letter this morning. You can read the original letter from the BBC here, and Anna Chen’s FAQ U BBC response here.


Monday 16th June 2014

British East Asian Artists (BEAA) write a stinging response to a BBC letter excusing discrimination against East Asian actors.

Shocking BBC email to student Bess (AKA Katherine) Chan cites the Equality Act 2010 to reject diversity and justify exclusion of East Asian actors from BBC programmes.

The British East Asian Artists group (BEAA) have written a stinging rebuke to a letter sent by the BBC Complaints Department this week to student Bess (AKA Katherine) Chan, who had asked why there were so few actors of East Asian origin in BBC programmes.

Despite being Britain’s third largest ethnic minority with an estimated 500,000 people identifying as of Chinese or East Asian origin, British East Asians (BEAs) are still not seen by the BBC as part of the fabric of British society.

Even though London is 40 per cent Black Asian Mixed Ethnic (BAME), and East London was the home of one of the great Chinatowns — Limehouse —  the BBC wrote: “For something like EastEnders, producers would consider the reality of the east end of London upon which depictions are based, thus questions would be is there a sizeable British East Asian population/presence/culture in the type of area Walford is meant to reflect.”

The BBC effectively says that British East Asians may only play characters that are crudely East Asian, and not ordinary everyday roles that are open to actors of other races: “… the actors hired are employed on the basis of their judged suitability for the role which has been written. You’ll understand that the actor does have to reflect the character they portray and, yes, this includes things like ethnicity as well as wider considerations of age, gender, physical appearance and so on.”

Writer Anna Chen, who blogs as Madam Miaow, asked, “Is this what made Laurence Olivier such a good Othello?”

A BEAA spokesperson said: “This would seem to imply that East Asian actors can only appear when the writer has specifically written their surnames as ‘Wong’ or ‘Chen’ and portrays them in characteristically recognisable ‘East Asian’ scenarios. … It would seem to discount the notion that we are all part of modern Britain. … certain minority groups cannot be included unless their perceived community’s activities are seen as ‘relevant’.”

“British East Asian Artists would welcome meeting the BBC in proactive dialogue that develops positive action to rectify a serious corporation-wide problem leading to the continual marginalisation of East Asians in Britain.”

 Bess Chan said, ” I couldn’t believe their message to me. They should replace Asian with Black and then they’d see how racist they are. It’s obvious that the BBC’s claim that there isn’t any trained BEA talent is complete and utter nonsense”.

The BEAA letter, can be found in full at (read below also)!stop-press/c9i8 and is signed by Anna Chen: Hi Ching: Dr. Broderick Chow: Kathryn Golding: Paul Hyu: Michelle Lee: Chowee Leow: Jennifer Lim: Dr. Amanda Rogers: Lucy Sheen: Dr. Ashley Thorpe: Dr. Diana Yeh: Daniel York

15th June 2014

Open letter from British East Asian Artists (BEAA) in response to a BBC letter to a student which appears to excuse discrimination against East Asian actors

As a group of actors, writers and academics who campaign for the rights of East Asians in British media, the British East Asian Artists group felt compelled to write in response to a recent reply to a complaint made by East Asian student Bess (AKA Katherine) Chan about the lack of East Asian presence in BBC programmes (see:–casting.html ). Firstly, we commend Bess for having the courage to do what East Asians traditionally are not supposed to do: speak up. The response Bess received from the BBC, whilst of admirable length, is riddled with contradictions and, if it is truly representative of the BBC’s views on East Asians (and minority groups in general), is deeply troubling and problematic.

 In the response, the BBC spokesperson appears to strive extremely hard to convince that there is no discrimination at the BBC even going so far as to quote the Equality Act in defence of the corporation’s non-use of quotas. However the following bombshell is then dropped-

 “You’ll understand that the actor does have to reflect the character they portray and, yes, this includes things like ethnicity as well as wider considerations of age, gender, physical appearance and so on.”

This would seem to imply that East Asian actors can only appear when the writer has specifically written their surnames as “Wong” or “Chen” and portrays them in characteristically recognisable “East Asian” scenarios. In other words it would appear to directly imply that East Asians would be of the wrong ethnicity to portray regular “British” characters with no “foreign” trappings. It would seem to discount the notion that we are all part of modern Britain. Why else would anyone cite “ethnicity” as qualification for an acting role unless the role is specifically written that way?

The BBC, according to the response, decries the idea of “positive discrimination” based on “quotas” as inherently unfair to “everyone”. Yet by the same token they maintain-

For something like EastEnders, producers would consider the reality of the east end of London upon which depictions are based, thus questions would be is there a sizeable British East Asian population/presence/culture in the type of area Walford is meant to reflect.”

Are we to assume then that in order for East Asian characters and/or actors (it’s important to separate the last two) to appear on Eastenders the British East Asian population/presence in the very diverse area that Walford is supposed to represent must reach a certain “quota” in order to “qualify”? So it is possible to discriminate negatively on the basis of “quotas” it would appear.

A word on the Equality Act: It is absolutely true that positive discrimination is illegal. Yet sections 158 and 159 of the Equality Act 2010 do actually allow for positive action if people of protected characteristics are suffering disadvantages which East Asians and other minority groups clearly are in this instance. Does the BBC take positive action? It is also true to say that in adherence to the Equality Act best practice would surely be to publish transparent monitoring data of onscreen employment which at present the BBC does not. It is difficult to see how, without this transparency, the BBC is able to defend their record on casting and it would appear more than a little disingenuous to use the Equality Act to justify inequality.

Even more troubling is this-

There is absolutely no discrimination by writers and producers against any section of society when considering such things, it’s simply about characters, relevance, what can be brought to the wider context of the show and the series as a whole…The answer might be that whilst there may be a presence, it perhaps doesn’t specifically equate to something that could necessarily be part of storylines.”

Surely the contradiction here is obvious. There is no discrimination but certain minority groups cannot be included unless their perceived community’s activities are seen as “relevant”. Are we to understand then that East Asians in East London are “irrelevant” to a programme such as Eastenders (since that is what we are referring to here)? That East Asians are somehow separate or apart and do not “specifically equate” to the rest of East London? Elsewhere in the BBC’s response there is great play made on the idea of “talent” coming first but it would appear that all the “talent” in the world will be of little use if the “presence” of East Asians in the area the programme is set in is deemed “irrelevant” by the BBC.

This theme is continued in the next paragraph which re-emphasises commitment to a “level-playing field”-

…we want the best and most suitable person for the requirements of the role but whilst no-one is excluded or discriminated against, as mentioned a medium like television does have to allow programme makers the ability to have a very wide choice based on the dramatic and artistic requirements upon them.

East Asians clearly are being discriminated against if their presence is deemed “irrelevant” to a programme set in modern Britain and the programme-makers are clearly limiting their choices if their “dramatic and artistic requirements” are led by said notions of monolithic “relevance”. Let us be clear here: it cannot be often that the “relevance” of including Caucasian characters and/or actors in BBC dramas is questioned. If the “relevance” of East Asian (or other minority groups) is an issue then that is a clearly discriminatory set of circumstances.

What the BBC cannot possibly do, of course, is be responsible for the talent pool of actors out there.”

There does seem to be an implication here that there aren’t enough “good” East Asian actors. Whilst there may not be vast numbers there are, nevertheless, plenty of East Asian actors who have acted extensively in theatre and films. However, they simply cannot garner TV auditions outside stereotypical and one-dimensional “take-away owner” roles where the major requirement for the role would appear to be fulfilling the programme-makers’ idea of cliché. The currently-in-production One Child, described by BBC Head Of Series Kate Harwood as a “huge opportunity” for the “British East Asian acting community”, required actors to convince the BBC they could portray Mainland China nationals (in other words to not be “British”) and in many cases the casting process required the actors to speak a foreign language (Mandarin) which they often had to translate themselves for the auditions. It’s also true that members of the “British East Asian acting community” with extensive theatre and film credits have often felt compelled to decline offers to appear in clichéd and minor roles which, to artists of their professional standing, were considered somewhat desultory. It might well be that the BBC should get their own house in order before casting aspersions on the professional abilities of minority ethnic actors.

So, British East Asian actors can compete against any other actor, but the key word is compete because this is one of the most – indeed, perhaps the most, competitive industries there is thus there is huge competition for every role and every position with countless people being left disappointed of course, but that’s the reality of the performing arts.”

Virtually every British East Asian actor we know desires only to able to “compete” on a level playing field but surely you can see that in an arena when some are deemed “not relevant” on the basis of their ethnic background and it seems can most often only be considered in “foreign” roles this is no “competition” at all. At one point the BBC response even talks of the corporation being unable to-

simply shoehorn a British East Asian family of characters in for no reason or relevance

This is a simply staggering assertion. There is no question whatsoever of Caucasian characters being “shoe-horned” in but unless there is some sort of special relevance East Asians would be seen as being so. This is a clear statement of discrimination. One is considered the “norm”. One isn’t and requires “special” circumstances.

Finally, it has to be said that the list at the end of East Asian actors whose careers the BBC has supposedly “championed” is itself fairly damning including, as it does, someone who was so unimpressed by the opportunities on offer to them that they left the acting profession aged barely 30. Many of those on that list share Bess’, and our, concerns and are indeed on record to that effect.

The response concludes that the BBC “shares” Bess’ “ambition for more British East Asians to appear on BBC programmes and be part of our workforce”.

It doesn’t appear terribly “ambitious” when we still seem to have advanced no further than being tokenistic foreigners who require special “relevance” to justify our presence in British TV dramas. Citing The Chinese Detective only reinforces these concerns as it last aired in 1982.

This response is deeply disappointing, hurtful and even shocking. We support the BBC as a publicly funded broadcaster and would wish to work with them. But the corporation’s attitude on this appears to be stuck somewhere in the last century. The wider British East Asian population wishes to be recognised as a part of modern Britain and for their lives and experiences as such to be reflected in the media. All British East Asian artists whom we know are dedicated and work extremely hard . We would like to contribute and be included. We would like to “compete”.

We do not wish to be “shoe-horned” in.

British East Asian Artists would of course welcome meeting with the BBC in proactive dialogue that develops positive action to modify a situation which we believe is a serious corporation-wide problem leading to the continual marginalisation of East Asians in Britain.

Orphan of Zhao update and roundtable

Well, it’s been a while since my last post, largely because term just overtook me as it is wont to do. But to follow on from my previous post, courtesy of the Asian Performing Arts Forum, we held a public roundtable on The Orphan of Zhao. We invited the RSC, the academic advisor to the RSC (Dr Ru Ru Li) and two of the actors from the production, but of course no-one showed. To be honest, I can’t really blame them because whilst the intention was to engage rather than publicly bash them, they can’t go into a public arena and say we were wrong about a production that is still on. That would be suicidal theatrical economics.

Anyway we held a great event at the Centre for Creative Collaboration between artists and academics, with Daniel York, Anna Chen, Broderick Chow (Birkbeck) and yours truly on the panel (sadly Lynette Goddard couldn’t make it) with Ashley Thorpe (Reading) as chair. We had a mixed academic/artist audience. For those unable to make it the first part of the recording is here:

And the second part is here:

Now, I am not always the most erudite person, particularly verbally, so just a few caveats on what I said:

1) With regards to ‘we aren’t there yet’ or ‘we aren’t ready yet’ for full colour blind casting.

Yes, I know, I know about Peter Brook’s Hamlet! BAD EXAMPLE. Momentary lapse. Many of my artist friends cite that production as INSPIRATIONAL, so why I forgot it I don’t know. But what I meant was we are not in a post-racial society where race doesn’t matter. Race shouldn’t matter but it does. Audiences still often read race (and institutions and wider society DO reinforce a racialising mindset) and not all audiences will look beyond it. Hence also my parents and in-laws commenting on seeing BME actors in non BME roles (also a generational thing here). I fundamentally agree that theatres are not necessarily liberal, in fact, they are typical of white middle class people (such as myself) thinking we are liberal, when really we must constantly challenge our own assumptions. Casting directors may think about colour blind casting and emphasise multiculturalism, but they think Black and South Asian, NOT East Asian. So there’s all sorts of imaginative inequalities going on there. There’s also an inherent catch 22 in this situation – I would love an equal playing field but in reality that level playing field doesn’t exist, so there is still a need for “colour blind” casting that recognises discrimination. The problem of course is that it reinforces racialisation so we are stuck in a dependency cycle: to get beyond race, we need to recognise race, hence why I think colour aware casting is maybe a more accurate way to think about things, rather than pretending no-one notices race (including whiteness) and the huge political and social inequalities that surround it.

2) Lea Salonga and Miss Saigon

Ok, so Lea Salonga was already a star in the Philippines before Miss Saigon and she wasn’t plucked from obscurity (yes, I bought into the globalising megamusical capitalist machinery). BUT Miss Saigon made her an international superstar so she can command Broadway etc. So my point about having an opportunity, making stars, and then doing something with it (e.g. Allegiance) stands.

3) When I said about the political fight being over for Black and South Asian actors…….

YES, there is still inequality for Black British and South Asian actors. Hence Blackta. Hence the all South Asian Much Ado. Hence the many Black British and South Asian companies in the UK (Tamasha, Tara, etc etc). BUT comparatively speaking, East Asians are way behind and lag in terms of political protest around diversity in the arts. There are degrees of invisibility and what Orphan of Zhao highlights is a move towards a more overt politicisation that happened for Black and South Asian actors in the 70s and 80s. So, once again, poor expression on my part.

More on this will follow. Broderick, Ashley and myself are trying to get a forum issue of Contemporary Theatre Review going (although I can’t help but think there’s an Antipode piece in here). And I’m off to see Orphan of Zhao on Dec 22. It isn’t selling that well, nor is the season of which it is part (the infamous trilogy). I am in two minds about this lack of success. Does this mean that East Asian works and actors aren’t profitable enough to make them a staple of British theatre? I think it is the comparative obscurity of the plays that is partly to blame as well as their marketing. But on the other hand, look at the huge success of Wild Swans – a very popular and accessible piece. It just goes to show the huge differentiations in the current (and economically driven) ‘vogue’ for China. Only particular forms and versions of Chineseness need apply.

Now, I am off to write about theatre and transnational registers of experience. I guess geographers may be more interested in that…….

The Orphan of Zhao: Inequality, Interculturalism and National Abjection in Casting

Well, I have been meaning to post about casting again and explain why it is so central to my research as a cultural geographer. But events have overtaken me, largely because rather than reflecting and analysing on casting practices for the purposes of academic debate, for the last two weeks I have been heavily involved in political protests over the casting of The Orphan of Zhao at the RSC. A daunting prospect to challenge the liberal establishment, a revered institution and one that, to be fair, has made strides in developing multicultural or ethnic-specific castings (as in the latest all black Julius Caesar and the all South Asian Much Ado About Nothing). However in this instance, the RSC has made a sore misjudgement.

For those of you who don’t know, The Orphan of Zhao is a classic revenge tragedy of the Chinese stage, often referred to as The Chinese Hamlet. You would think then, that it would be cast with East Asians? Wrong. There are only three East Asians in this cast out of a potential 17, two of whom are operating puppets, one of whom is playing the maid. The rationale for this is, according to Artistic Director and Director Gregory Doran, is that The Orphan of Zhao is being cast multiculturally in repertory with Pushkin’s Boris Godunov and Brecht’s Life of Galileo. What this response entirely fails to acknowledge is the unequal playing field on offer here: you can have white actors playing Chinese characters (one step away from yellowface) but not have (too many) East Asians in non-ethnic specific roles. Audiences, apparently, wouldn’t like that. Last week the black actor Danny Lee Wynter highlighted the same racial inequalities in The Stage (read HERE). Of course, the RSC suggested that ‘the play is Chinese, but the production isn’t.’ Yet this is a skewed logic when you use a small Chinese child in your marketing, have a taxpayer funded trip to China for research, actively court Chinese tourists, schoolchildren and Chinese audiences more widely with a Mandarin language campaign, and organise a one-day workshop for the paying public with a leading Chinese theatre academic on jingju (Beijing Opera).

I had written to Arts Council England to ask how this situation represented the case for diversity in the UK, I had lobbied journalists and media organisations to ask the RSC about their casting, and then with Anna Chen’s  ‘Two Dogs and a Maid’ piece (which you can read HERE) and ‘The Fairy Princess Diaries’ (HERE) it all blew up on twitter and Facebook. Eventually the RSC responded via their Press Office (see their Facebook thread HERE) and so did Doran when we eventually got the Guardian to write about the debacle (read HERE). Unfortunately his response only reinforced his position as a white man with great privilege.

Last Friday I tweeted that “I feel like the last 30 years of academic research + debate on intercultural theatre gone.down.the.drain @TheRSC #TheOrphanofZhao #impact?!” So I would like to explain what I meant when I said this, just to add an academic slant to the practices and debates that are in operation. I had recently finished writing an academic article about intercultural theatre and cultural space and in my mind The Orphan of Zhao seemed to have rewound about 30 years’ worth of academic work. I realized that whilst we may loathe the Higher Education ‘impact agenda’ – this is an instance of when we could (should?) have had more effect.

Intercultural theatre is quite simply when one culture seeks to engage with another through specific performance forms, practices, languages and aesthetics. Orphan reminds me of the Orientalist arguments surrounding the controversy of Peter Brook’s 9-hour stage version of The Mahabarata in 1985. Now Brook has always been interested in universal transcendence, in exploring the fact that we are a common humanity. However, like Orphan he didn’t take into account his own position and the power that accompanied it because of his view that we are all, supposedly, equal. Brook was heavily criticized for simplifying the Mahabarata, its characters and its plot, turning its meanings into something that was easily consumable and digestible for ‘western’ audiences. Rustom Bharucha in The Theatre and the World criticized Brook for downplaying caste, the core organizing principle of Indian society and for avoiding “a confrontation of the historical context of Indian culture” (232). In short, Brook’s decontextualisation of the Mahabarata was critiqued as being Orientalist and insensitive to its original context, something exacerbated by his position as a white British man. The problem with any kind of cross-cultural work is that there is a tendency to strip culture and signs of culture from source texts, and the international casting of Brook’s Mahabarata reinforced this problem because the casting raised questions around ‘can anyone portray Indian cultural figures?’ and ‘who owns culture?’

There is a slew of critical work on this production but intercultural theatre critics have since become highly sensitive to what forms of culture are used in theatrical enterprises, what the politics and ethics of a cross-cultural collaboration might be, of who is doing the representing, who is doing the talking and in which language, whose voices are and are not heard and how that fits into consumer demands. These are the kinds of questions that intercultural theatre has been dealing with for years and which are glossed over by the RSC’s stance regarding The Orphan of Zhao and its casting. It is clear that the rise of China economically is forcing us to engage with its culture and history – and of course the RSC are acutely aware of this as a marketing strategy as Anna Chen reminds us (see HERE). But while I’d like to think that there was real cultural engagement in operation on the part of the RSC, I have yet to find any evidence of it.

To begin with we have little idea what version of Orphan of Zhao James Fenton has adapted, how he came to it and what he is seeking to portray through it. Will there be Chinese movement in this production – is this why there is a workshop on jingju? Or is this contextualizing the play through a simple exoticism via an engagement with a culturally different form that bears little relevance to the actual production (after all, remember the RSC has said the production isn’t Chinese). If you read Doran’s blog on the week long research trip to China (yes, that’s one week) on the RSC website (HERE) it reads like a white man’s travelogue c.1850 and aside from the trip to the Shanghai Opera, I would love to know more about what the research was and how it’s going to be translated into the play. And which context are they researching anyway? That hugely diverse country called China? Or The Yuan dynasty? Or some generic ‘Chinese theatre’ practice? Intercultural theatre so often engages with difference for the sake of difference, and it seems the RSC may have fallen prey to this trap as such short periods of exploration frequently lead to superficiality because they prevent any real understanding of a play’s original context. Let’s not forget as well that white Brits are making the artistic translations on this production and aside from Dr. Li we have little idea of if and how anyone Chinese was consulted.

Of course, the casting is the main issue at stake here and we can’t conflate culture and race. But the casting is deeply offensive to the people that the play supposedly represents. In his response Gregory Doran called the outrage ‘sour grapes’ but this fails to recognize the issue of whose stories are being told and by whom – the central question of any critical cross-cultural work. As my friend Greg Watanabe wrote on the RSC thread “when large, well funded, prestigious theaters finally tell an Asian story and fail to use Asians, or British East Asians to tell that story, they have to try to understand how that feels to us. It feels like orientalism, like a minstrel show, like you think we’re not good enough to tell our own stories, that you would presume to tell our stories for us, dictate to us our culture and identity.”

Now I am all for multicultural casting, but the issue is one of opportunity. If East Asians in this country can’t get the opportunity to play ethnic specific parts written for them, then what roles can they play? They rarely play non-specific roles anyway because their faces literally don’t fit director expectations. Current casting practices at the RSC in particular are based on track record and networks. These things are hard to accumulate when you are consistently discriminated against because of your race. When the RSC suggest they chose the ‘best person for the role’ this can’t be taken at face value (no pun intended). Don’t believe for a second that they trawled the entire East Asian acting community for ‘lots and lots’ of actors. We know they didn’t. We know they picked people they already knew, all of whom are fantastic actors, but the RSC didn’t look beyond their own noses. So unlike the all-black Julius Ceasar where the RSC admirably went to great lengths to find an all-black cast, that wasn’t the case here. And the question remains why not? And if Orphan of Zhao is in repertory then why can’t East Asians play non-racially specific roles?

All of this leads me to a final point that East Asians in the UK exist in a state of national abjection. Abjection is a “an attempt to circumscribe and radically differentiate something that, although deemed repulsively other is, paradoxically, at some fundamental level, an undifferentiable part of the whole” (Shimakawa 2002, 2). So we bring something into visibility, into existence, whilst simultaneously repelling and expelling the object of our attraction. And so it is with East Asians in the UK – we are fond of finding out about Chinese cultures on film, in tv documentaries, in theatre, but these interests are nearly always mediated through white people and there is little interest in people of Chinese descent in our own country, people who are British Chinese. Such a sentiment evokes the spectre of ‘yellow peril’ and the resulting desire to expel Chinese bodies from sight, mind and shores. And so Chinese culture is becoming ever more visible in our everyday lives whilst making invisible those who may lay claim to it. The RSC debacle seems to encapsulate these contradictory dynamics.