Category Archives: Race in Performance

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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

https://cronfa.swan.ac.uk/Record/cronfa18713

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

https://cronfa.swan.ac.uk/Record/cronfa18712

Enjoy.

 

Yellowface alive and well at the Print Room

In a week where BAFTA announced that, from 2019, films that do not demonstrate diversity and inclusivity will no longer be considered for awards, in theatre land the antics at the Print Room, Notting Hill, show just how far we still have to go. Organisations such as Act for Change have initiated a wider cultural shift towards the promotion of equal opportunities and diversity. However, work by Dave O’Brien on the BBC  and Jami Rogers on the casting of Shakespeare, shows that there is still a white ceiling that needs to be broken in our theatre and entertainment industries. The casting of Howard Barker’s play In the Depths of Dead Love highlights something that has occasionally crossed my mind as more and more high-profile names lend their voices to the diversity cause: to what degree is it all lip service? Now, I know I am relentlessly cynical, and indeed, there have been many many positive strides made in the last few years, but the casting of this production gives me pause.

Barker (one of our great living dramatists) has written a contemporary play, set in China, complete with characters with Chinese names (although those names are obscure at best). And how have these been cast? With entirely white actors. Now, I have nothing against these actors personally, but, I’m sorry, this is yellowface.

In 2012, a group of us stuck our necks out on the line to protest the casting of the RSC’s The Orphan of Zhao, which also used yellowface. In the wake of the international furore that was created, I hoped that this archaic practice was dead and buried. Ashley Thorpe and I put together a special issue of Contemporary Theatre Review to document this moment because we felt it was a turning point. The moment where the entire East Asian community in Britain says NO MORE. Where the academics say NO MORE. Where the wider theatre profession says NO MORE. This has to stop, it is time for this to stop. And here we are again. I am repeating myself so let’s break this down – again. Others have beaten me to it, including the indomintable Erin Quill, a.k.a. The Fairy Princess, Lucy Sheen, Daniel YorkDavid Lee Jones and, today, Equity UK released a statement condemning the Print Room’s casting choices and explanations. There is also some great coverage in The Stage but I feel, as always, that the more voices there are, the more pressure there is, the more theatres have to account for their actions, and then it becomes easier to create a new norm.

Now yellowface is often associated with make-up and costume, with the performance of obscene stereotypes that are designed to denigrate and ridicule. But this is not all, because yellowface is a historic practice whereby those stereotypes were also explicitly designed by Hollywood to allow white actors to play any role, to explicitly exclude East Asian actors, to deny them opportunities. Over time, as the stereotypes and the dress-ups begin to diminish, that legacy of exclusion remains. So when anyone casts a white actor in an East Asian role, it denies East Asian actors a link to their culture and heritage, it erases their presence, it denies the demand for equal opportunities and diversity to be a live and vital force. I have an article that explains this – I am so angry to be writing this again that I am going to try and make it open access on this blog tomorrow (within the publisher guidelines) so that people can read it. What I find even more troubling is that there are so many fantastic East Asian actors out there now that the idea that there aren’t East Asians who can play these roles is a lazy and inaccurate assumption. Get a new casting director.

Not only did the Print Room take 4 days to respond, but when they did, it was like reading something from twenty years ago:

In the Depths of Dead Love is a very simple fable; it is not a play that tells a Chinese story, it is not about Chinese society, culture or perspectives. If it were, the casting would be very different, naturally.”

Here we have the classic trope of  ‘Oriental set dressing’ – China as a pretty backdrop, a foil for all our British anxieties and fears. Yet this is also Orientalist – it highlights our desire to control, to have imaginative and physical power over another place. Yet by being set in China it demands East Asian actors (more on that in a minute for those of you who don’t agree with me).

“Whilst the characters have been given Chinese names, that is to reference the abstract and the folkloric idea of the universal; we could just as easily be in the metaphorical area of Hans Christian Anderson, or, alternatively, the land of the Brothers Grimm.”

The last half century of critical thought has shown that what is ‘universal’ is actually white, male, and Eurocentric. Universalism is linked to the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution where it became easy to ‘abstract’ cultural specificity in the search for general principles or laws. Only a theatre in a position of power, that aims to reflect the dominant world view, could come out with that kind of statement.

“It is, in fact a very ‘English’ play and is derived from thoroughly English mores and simply references the mythic and the ancient. It has therefore been cast accordingly.”

Of course, East Asians aren’t part of contemporary Britain are they? And our British East Asian actors couldn’t possibly play these roles because they aren’t English are they? What an insult. I’ve been writing and campaigning for years, along with so many BEA theatre makers, to highlight the discrimination that exists for this group in theatre. But my bigger point here is that we are not yet in the situation where everyone has equal opportunities to every role. I want BEA actors to be employed in roles far beyond the confines of these racially and ethnically specific ones, but racial preferences are deeply ingrained in us all by society, and those in power like to promote in their own image: which, for now, is largely white and male. Things are shifting, but until we reach that point where anyone of any race can play any role – and equal opportunities, and the diversity that results from that, really exists on stage/screen – then it is not ok for white actors to play East Asian roles. It reinforces all those historic practices and exclusions.

“We acknowledge that some publicity materials seem to have permitted the possibility of a misapprehension arising. Print Room remains committed to diversity and inclusiveness in all we do, as our history shows.”

Diversity and inclusiveness – this is lip service. This statement is woefully inadequate. It fails utterly to engage with diversity, to grapple with the challenges it poses to the status quo, and to understand what it really means for all our theatres.

Andrew Keates (who is directing Chinglish at the Park Theatre) has called for a protest on January 19th outside the theatre. Get your placards ready.

 

 

Interview with Dr Dave O’Brien

The other week I was lucky enough to be interviewed by Dr Dave O’Brien at Goldsmith’s about my book for the New Books in Critical Theory website. The podcast/audio file is now available, open access and therefore free, at the site here: http://newbooksincriticaltheory.com/2015/03/25/amanda-rogers-performing-asian-transnationalisms-theatre-identity-and-the-geographies-of-performance-routledge-2015/

He wrote a really great blurb for it which I am unashamedly cribbing here:

Identity, performance and globalisation are at the heart of the cultural practices interrogated by Amanda Rogers in Performing Asian Transnationalisms: Theatre, Identity and the Geography of Performance (Routledge, 2015). The book explores the global networks of theatre that have emerged between Asia, America and Europe, using a variety of policy, practice and political examples. The book argues that globalisation, and the attendant transnational flows of people and culture, has both the potential to create theatre careers and new, important, works, whist at the same time constraining individuals, communities and cultural forms. The book draws on a rich combination of ethnographic and interview data, along with theoretically informed cultural analysis, using examples ranging from The British Council and the Singapore Art Festival, through Asian American and British East Asian identities, to controversial performances of the Orphan of Zhao. The book will be of primary interest to cultural, geography and performance scholars, but has valuable insights for social science and the humanities more generally.

I hope I do it, and everyone I met through the project, justice. I was a bit nervous and I admit that I am not going to listen to it to spare myself any embarrassment, though I have received some nice compliments so far. We talked about a range of issues, including how I got into this area in the first place, the merging of passion and theory, some of the specifics of the research such as questions of scale, race and performance in different contexts, geographies of performance and transnationalism, policy making, the variety of approaches that I take, and what I am doing next. It’s about 50 mins long. Enjoy!

Update: BEAA lobby Ed Vaizey

I have been quiet the last 6 months whilst I knuckled down to finish the monograph (more on that later….) but as part of British East Asian Artists, we lobbied the Minister for Culture, Ed Vaizey, as he was setting up diversity initiatives to address the marginalisation of Black actors in mainstream culture. With the success of 12 Years a Slave, a lot of attention was being paid to the spate of Black British – and Asian – artists migrating to America seeking work. Once again, the lack of diversity in British media was the hot topic and it is a timely one for me as my book partly explores how racial-ethnic marginalisation encourages British East Asian theatre-makers to travel looking for work in America, but also China, Hong Kong and Singapore. In reverse, the fact that leading American practitioners cannot establish relationships to British theatres owing to a multicultural landscape that ‘boxes’  individuals illustrates how ideologies and policies designed to be progressive can end up reinforcing inequality.

With the media kicking off on the lack of opportunities for Black British and South Asian artists, we thought it would be useful to highlight that this was also true for East Asian actors. So we wrote the following which was reported in several outlets, including The StageThe Independent and The Times. Ed Vaizey responded and is going to include East Asians in his attempts to address inequality (see Anna Chen’s report here). Since then, further diversity issues have been aired, including the shocking statistic that you are as likely to see a female alien as you are an Asian woman in Hollywood films (see here). So much still to be achieved.

An open letter to Ed Vaizey and heads of broadcasting from the British East Asian Artists group.

We read with interest that the UK Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, The Right Honourable Mr. Ed Vaizey, has expressed concern about the number of black actors who are abandoning Britain for America because of lack of opportunities here. We welcome the concern that Mr. Vaizey and the media at large have expressed on this issue recently. We also welcome his determination to make meaningful changes in this area. In our opinion such an initiative is long overdue.

However we hope that these concerns and efforts will include all minority ethnic groups and not just the catch-all “Black & Asian”. As a group that fights the cause of British East Asian theatre and screen workers, we would like all parties to keep at the forefront of their mind that Asia continues east of India and that East Asia (particularly the East Asian “diaspora”) is not just “Chinese” and “Japanese”.

East Asians are the third largest minority ethnic group in Britain today. We are also the fastest growing and arguably the most diverse. This is simply not reflected on our stages and screens at present and never has been.

China, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Thailand are among the top ten senders of international students to the UK, which by the government’s own statistics contributed 75% of the UK’s total education export income worth £17.5 billion in 2011. British East Asians contribute much to the economy and general make-up of the modern United Kingdom and to be continually ignored and passed over in this way is surely unacceptable.

As said, we welcome the ministerial and media concern about black actors which is no doubt largely as a result of the recent success of Chiwetel Ejiofor and Idris Elba.

Let us remember though, that, despite the lack of challenging opportunities, both Chiwetel and Idris had successful enough careers here to enable them to start up in the US. No such opportunities (barring literally one or two “tokens”) are afforded East Asians in Britain. Recent successful “China plays” aside, East Asians are not seen in our popular media.

In 30 years, except for one Chinese DVD seller who lasted barely three months, the popular soap opera Eastenders has never featured any recurring East Asian characters whatsoever. The hospital dramas, Casualty and Holby City, have featured only three young East Asian regular characters each despite the high number of (diverse) East Asians working in our health service. Coronation Street, set around Manchester with its long-established Chinatown, has featured only one East Asian character (a female Chinese immigrant) in its entire history. East Asian males are rarely seen on our screens and mixed-race East Asians are particularly rare, not fitting the generic “Chinese/Japanese” stereotype. When East Asians are featured they are nearly always heavily accented, the women passive and submissive, the men brutish, asexual and devoid of any individualistic character. East Asians are, more often than any other minority ethnic group, rarely seen as indigenous.

In discussions around equal opportunities and social inclusion we therefore urge all parties to consider the full extent of Britain’s multicultural make-up. On our part, we feel that East Asians have been seen as the “model minority” for too long. High-achieving, silent and largely invisible. We feel this needs to change now.

Signed: Anna Chen Hi Ching Dr. Broderick Chow Kathryn Golding Paul Hyu Michelle Lee Chowee Leow Jennifer Lim Dr. Amanda Rogers Lucy Sheen Dr. Diana Yeh Daniel York

British East Asian Artists (BEAA) is a pressure group comprising actors, performers, writers, film-makers and academics who came together during the controversy over the Royal Shakespeare Company’s casting of the Chinese classic The Orphan Of Zhao with just three actors of East Asian descent in a cast of seventeen with all three in roles described by critics as “minor”. The social media protest initiated went global and resulted in the Arts Council and Equity sponsoring the Opening The Door To East Asians In The Theatre event last February 11th 2013. BEAA’s objectives are to raise the profile of East Asians working in theatre, film and TV and to enable people of East Asian descent to make, and have access to, performing arts work.

PS: Pondering 1920s set tv programs

Incidentally, after yesterday’s Fu Manchu blog, where I mentioned Anna May Wong in a 1920s period tv show I remembered one of my favourite photographs of all time. Which is this…

Paul Robeson, Anna May Wong and Mei Lanfang outside Claridges Hotel, London 1935

Paul Robeson, Anna May Wong and Mei Lanfang outside Claridge’s Hotel in 1935.  Ok, so a bit later than I immediately remembered. But my point is that here is cosmopolitan London, with three iconic, global, stars of their time, and they aren’t all white, or black. The thing I love about this photo is that it really speaks to cross-racial coalition, friendship, and stardom – in a time supposedly less progressive than ours. Robeson also supported the cause of Welsh miners and a few years later would star in The Proud Valley about mining life in the Rhondda Valley. And yet, this kind of diversity, this intercultural exchange that actually existed, is not present in our mainstream media. Producers, look at this photo and take note….