Category Archives: Events

#NT50

Some quick thoughts about the NT 50 celebrations:

1) I loved it. Sponge like whilst watching that television.

2) I realised that this is where some of our acting legends made their names.

3) Why doesn’t Tim Piggot Smith do more? Or Lindsay Duncan? Michael Gambon is Mr. Pinter.

4) Adrian Lester is sensational. He always just seems to become someone else. A friend of mine saw him in Peter Brook’s Hamlet and said this production ‘changed his life’ as an actor – Lester was the aspirational figure. It was interesting that he did a scene from Othello that was a ‘star turn’ moment – when I saw that production Iago (Rory Kinnear) stole the whole show. Decontextualisation I guess.

4) Denys Lasdun really was a pioneer in designing the building and Olivier helped champion a radical design. If we think about it, it’s only now that society has really accepted the NT as a building, 40 years after it was built. Lasdun had vision. The Olivier is based on the arenas of Greek theatre and that’s also fascinating. The actor who grew up in proscenium, but ‘his’ theatre is the ultimate in classicism, interaction, ‘for the people’ and (if we think Greek) democracy. I’m sure he’d have loved that reading. However, they really didn’t get the circle right in either the Olivier or the Lyttleton, but you can’t have it all.

5) Multiculturalism in the UK = Black British. And only one play. The history of minority theatre appears not to be the history of our ‘national’ theatre. Who is the nation represented here?

6) It was great to see diverse faces and voices, but it was, largely very white. Still some way to go, though I know strides are being made. We’ll keep pushing for those strides.

7) I really wish I’d seen London Road.

8) Can we have a broadcast like this more than once in 50 years?!

The Fu Manchu Complex

The Fu Manchu Complex by Daniel York at the Ovalhouse in London: the first full staging of a brand spanking new British East Asian play for how long? (I think 5 years since Yellow Earth Theatre’s Running the Silk Road). I’ve been waiting – watching various readings, seeing the short plays and now voila! Bona fide production! Hurrah! Even if you don’t read any more of what I have to say: go see it! It’s really good fun!

The Fu Manchu Complex is a satire on incredibly persistent stereotypes of the Chinese – stereotypes that permeate society, attaching themselves to anyone of British East Asian descent, and indeed, to most stories about contemporary China. Dr Fu Manchu is the greatest “Oriental” villain ever created: sinister, lithe, ruthless, cunning, slipppery, intelligent, the mastermind criminal of Sax Rohmer’s imagination. In the novels Nayland Smith and Dr Petrie are constantly thwarted by him, as just when Fu Manchu is cornered, he always manages to escape at the very last moment. Fu Manchu is the ultimate villain who can match, and supersede, the intelligence of white British men, and thus epitomises the Yellow Peril stereotype. He is the Chinese man the West fears but cannot know.

Set in late Victorian/early Edwardian Britain, The Fu Manchu Complex parodies the novels, with Nayland Smith and Dr Petrie brilliantly played as plummy and camp by Paul Chan and Andrew Koji. It has to be said that their comic timing is excellent and the physicality of Koji’s performance ramps up the ridicule of Imperial Britain’s “great, white men”. Smith realises that Fu Manchu has captured the colonialists and developed a serum that manages to turn them into Chinese people. Becoming this subhuman group is, of course, the ultimate kick against the horror and revulsion associated with attitudes to the Chinese – in this era especially.

The play debunks a whole series of stereotypes with its ironic humour, from the inability for minority groups to be perceived as British, the mis-reading of ethnicity, the disgust towards anything different, the use of white masks taken off when the characters become “assimilated” into a dominant culture. Yet the excessive performativity of the actors in playing the stereotypes is one of the key ways that the production gains a critical edge. This is not ‘straight up’ performance, it is knowingly tongue-in-cheek, with the racial pretence emphasised to destabilise the stereotypes in operation. When lines from Rohmer’s novels appear – not least in the infamous description of Fu Manchu himself – their racism and ridiculousness is made apparant. Fu Manchu’s revelation to the audience as a towering figure, glaringly pantomime, makes it hard to take this villain seriously. Indeed, the fact that these characters are played by British East Asians (of all stripes) only adds to the mockery of popular and degrading imagery. The play’s contextual setting also side-steps the exoticism often imposed onto China, Chinese characters or British East Asians by rooting itself in the Vaudeville music hall/Victorian BRITAIN (neatly illustrated by the staging, with its gilded frame and gas uplighting). BEA actors in period settings – another swipe in itself. (By the way, with Downton Abbey or Mr Selfridge, wouldn’t it be great to – oh I don’t know – have the biggest film star and most erudite woman of that time, ANNA MAY WONG appear, alongside the black jazz singers?)

I laughed and thought it was fun, although many mainstream reviewers seemed to have missed the point see (here) and (here). It isn’t perfect, it has a structural style and a point it repeatedly plays with and both run out of steam a little towards the end. However, I think it is a production that everyone needs to see to be reminded of the politics of racial stereotyping, and if you aren’t BEA, to be able to laugh at ourselves, because isn’t that one of the things the Brits are good at? It reminded me a lot of Sung Rno’s work and racial humour from a Korean American perspective and the audience had that same ‘laughter of recognition’ as Dorinne Kondo calls it in About Face. And for BEAs, I think this is landmark, for precisely that reason – they get the joke, and importantly that joke is on the dominant perceptions and structures that condition their mainstream theatrical representation. It is validating. And that is hugely important.

Prior to the performance I saw, Lucy Sheen and BEAA organised a panel discussion on ‘How do we move away from exotic curio to become integrated into British theatre?’ This was a really interesting event that considered the differences between British East Asians and their Black or South Asian counterparts, and discussed if the same routes should be followed. There was a panel of 6 speakers, poetry performances from Anna Chen (including the wonderful Anna May Wong Must Die!) and a public discussion chaired by me: Paul Hyu discussed his proposal to Equity that all EA parts should be played by EA actors, anticipating the possibility of yellow face in Miss Saigon, Dr Diana Yeh discussed the problems surrounding emerging hierarchies of racism and the multiple experiences and histories of racism and migration, Sonny Leong of Chinese for Labour said we all need to write to our MPs and lobby arts institutions and organisations, Jennifer Lim discussed self producing, Justin Audibert (the director of Fu Manchu Complex) discussed Black British theatre and  supported Paul’s ideas and I had my own little ramblings too. This has been filmed and no doubt placed somewhere on line….

Much is happening in the BEA sector at present, lots of plays, including this home-grown one, EA mixed race audition days, the next round of new writing Dim Sum Nights…. onwards onwards. For anyone interested, I’ve pasted my 4 min speech for the panel below.  Please quote me properly if you use it and remember it’s a stimulus to discussion:

The purpose of the debate is to discuss the idea and the reality of diversity, social and cultural inclusion for British East Asians in the arts and why unlike their colleagues of Black African-Caribbean or South Asian heritage, East Asians have not achieved similar recognition and visibility. Why are East Asians still subject to such demeaning and racist practices as Yellow Face?

I want to preface my comments by highlighting that many Black and South Asian artists still feel discriminated against and that there is some way to go in terms of equal representation. However, why haven’t British East Asians achieved similar levels of recognition and visibility?

Four things:

1) Black artists in particular speak out. We all see regular features where prominent practitioners discuss experiencing a lack of opportunities, being asked to perform stereotypes. This discussion is being held in a public way by leading figures. Since the Orphan of Zhao, this is starting to occur more and more now for East Asians. I think that is all to the good because there needs to be more social awareness and argumentation – which I will come to more in a minute.

2) That brings me to my second point which is that Black and South Asians work collectively. Idris Elba said he didn’t want to be the only black guy in Luther. So there is a collective agenda to help each other – if you know someone who could do a great artistic job from your own community or who needs a break, you suggest them. Asian Americans have been good at doing this as well in terms of giving each other opportunities. I know that this does happen, but it has to be for everyone.

3) Relatedly, thirdly, I feel that there is a real need to create a British East Asian voice and that will intrinsically be diverse. Black and South Asian communities have provided their own opportunities and their own image. You can question the extent to which that has actually worked and the types of representations that’s always produced, but on the other hand BEAs certainly couldn’t have the equivalent of Walk In The Light at the National. I worry about what happens when the mainstream has had its fling with China? Keep using Asian American works? The current swathe of plays is great – but is it a stepping stone to something else, or are those plays simply keeping EAs in the box? I also think there needs to be multiple avenues or outlets because it’s hard to support or serve everyone’s artistic orientation so it can’t just be the mainstream, it can’t just be the ethnic specific theatres. The other thing is that socially and politically, multiculturalism is losing currency as an idea, it’s said to be dying, but I think that might create opportunity to make the BEA theatre landscape really varied.

4) Finally, British East Asians need a popular and academic discourse. The Black and SA communities benefitted from the fact that their presence helped instigate the idea of multiculturalism, whereas now EAs are coming into prominence at a time when multiculturalism is on the wane. Black and South Asians shaped our understandings of race and multiculturalism in Britain, and wrote themselves into the social fabric in the process – famously the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham with people like Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy There Ain’t No Black…. Kobena Mercer, Angela McRobbie, as well as Lord Parekh’s report on Multiculturalism in Britain – these people created the discourse. Do those narratives automatically apply to British East Asians? I am on the fence, but BEAs need that wider cultural discourse too, popularly and academically, that needs writing and it’s a joint responsibility. It’s noticeable that there are literally a handful of articles on BEA theatre and many are focused on the same productions (YET’s Lear) so it is a self perpetuating circle that needs breaking.

Q&A with David Henry Hwang

Last Saturday, I was privileged to do the public Q&A with David Henry Hwang at the UK premiere of his 2008 award winning play Yellow Face at the Park Theatre in Finsbury, London. Thanks to Kevin Shen, Lucy Fenton and David for inviting me to do this!

We had 45 minutes of lively and humour filled discussion where David relayed experiences from his career, his influences as a writer, as well as – of course – a discussion about racial and ethnic minorities in theatre. David remains only one of two Asian American playwrights to be produced on Broadway (the other being Rajiv Joseph) and is a leading light for theatre makers worldwide, not simply in America. I can honestly say that reading David’s work is how I started doing my research and has influenced its development in my book. But as we discovered, it was also influential to a number of audience members from different national and racial backgrounds. Such is his appeal. Although mainstream theatres often talk about diversity and claim to be genuinely interested in it, very few ethnic minority writers are regularly produced, especially in regional theatres. The line between audience accessibility and being able to turn a profit without automatically falling into exoticism is a difficult line to tread, but David is one of the few who can consistently do so.

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We also discussed the influences behind his current play Yellow Face, the resurgence of yellow face as a practice and the recent productions of his plays in China, notably The Dance and the Railroad and Chinglish. Alongside questions of race, cross-cultural exchange features as a strong theme in David’s work and he talked about how he was interested in exploring this further, particularly as Chinese – American relations (or as Niall Ferguson calls it ‘Chimerica’) become the defining political, economic, and cultural relationship of this century. Whereas Yellow Face is his statement on multiculturalism, Chinglish (which was produced on Broadway in 2011) points towards the future.

I was really thrilled to do this having met David in New York twice before. I was once described as ‘the only British academic working on Asian American theatre’ so I guess that somewhat bizarre by-line has its perks!

If anyone is in London, go see Yellow Face, it is a brilliant meditation on racial politics in the 21st Century, and very funny. It’s currently getting rave reviews at the Park (even winning over the Torygraph!), and features some stellar talent in its multicultural cast. I also wrote some of the programme notes about the practice of yellow face. I’m taping them to my office door tomorrow.

Despite having met David before, this is the first time I managed to ask him for a photo. I am usually too shy!

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Opening the Door

It’s been a long time and a long term, and I just got utterly snowed under. So two, maybe even three, quick posts from me today in between drafting my book. I did make it to the Opening the Door event held at the Young Vic on Feb 11th. The theatre industry and the East Asian community came out in force to discuss racial ceilings and what they felt could be done to address the marginalisation of East Asians in British theatre. I was really impressed at the turn out and the fact that this was obviously taken seriously as an issue. As someone (who will remain anonymous) said to me:  ‘we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t think there was an issue.’ The RSC turned up in force, 5 people from one organisation (2 casting directors, one producer, their press officer and Erica Whyman as the recently appointed Deputy AD). This suggests a real willingness to engage, though of course explanations about The Orphan of Zhao remained rather fuzzy when pushed on it. You can read Anna Chen’s encounter (aka ‘crisp gate’) here. On one level, it felt like a really historic moment, in that people were there, and people were willing to listen. But on another, I felt like a lot of us have had some of these conversations many many times before. There was no doubt too that when yours truly decided to get a bit pushy and questioned people further, that practitioners from within what we may call ‘the mainstream’ became somewhat defensive and even evasive. You can read my report, as well as all the others at the Devoted and Disgruntled website here. Since then, spotlight has also phased out their ‘Oriental’ category. I hope it’s replaced with something more appropriate.

The day ended on a note of optimism, and East Asians felt very empowered by the whole experience, as evidenced in the summing up. There are grounds for hope too with the production of #aiww at Hampstead and Chimerica at the Almeida. I’m off to see the former on April 24th, but I wonder how much boxing is still going on. I am always a skeptic. As David Yip highlighted during the summation, we have been here before, and so it remains to be seen how much of a PR exercise this was, and how much genuine engagement and change will result.