Nobody's Asian in the theatre
Earlier this year, a good friend of mine, Liz Chan, wrote about how Chinese Britons have stayed silent in the face of racism. She recounted her experiences in the often brutal environment of the acting world that have also filtered into everyday lives. As stereotypically subservient members of society, British East Asians have long nodded and smiled on as DVD seller or takeaway remarks are made to and about us. Liz was in a celebrated Christmas version of Cinderella at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2008 where she played the title role, wonderfully. In the rustling undergrowth comment section beneath her article, she was met with ‘You can’t possibly be Cinderella, she’s white’.
I am also an actress of Chinese descent and in my short 5 years in the industry have enjoyed playing to audiences in several established theatres, yet more often than not I am asked in auditions to be more ‘authentic’ – put aside my British accent and speak in a funny oriental one. Less than a month after Liz’s article, the Guardian ran an interactive map where they asked 100 Britons What it Means to be British; out of 100 faces, not a single East Asian. I can tell you how it feels to be British Chinese; invisible. The frustration is summed up brilliantly by Maurissa Tancharoen’s Nobody’s Asian In The Movies:
Then came the summer of tremendous excitements and achievements: As I watched Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony, I received a text message from a friend saying “Who is that Chinese dude in the top hat?!” I replied, “Dunno but he’s in a top hat!”. The prestigious, publicly funded, Royal Shakespeare Company mounted two very successful productions of an all black Julius Caesar and a South Asian Much Ado About Nothing, the Young Vic theatre put on a wonderful transatlantic production of Wild Swans with a cast entirely of East Asian actors, and a Korean pop song gangnammed its way to top the UK charts. With such diversity and much to celebrate, I wouldn’t even mind an unsolicited smug hug from Lord Coe.
It is with a sinking heart that I heard about the aforementioned prestigious, publicly funded theatre company’s most recent casting decision. What started out as a conversation between me and a few of my colleagues has gone viral in the last week. The East Asian theatre community has been outraged by the casting of the RSC in their forthcoming production The Orphan of Zhao, billed as ‘the Chinese Hamlet’. Out of a cast of 17, only 3 are East Asian performers. If you look at the cast list these actors are confined to playing minor roles, though the RSC maintains that no matter how small, the roles are still “key”.
Since the RSC issued its first statement a week ago on its Facebook page, it has garnered over 440 comments, some of which are from East Asian actors who have enjoyed mainstream success. Comparison has been made of this casting decision to one in Germany where a white actor was cast in the main role of a black character in Clybourne Park and outcries from across the pond in American and Australia. Perhaps most powerfully, the decision has drawn this statement from Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang:
The Orphan of Zhao casting controversy says less about Britain’s Asian acting community, than it does about the RSC’s laziness and lack of artistic integrity… By producing The Orphan of Zhao, the RSC seeks to exploit the public’s growing interest in China; through its casting choices, the company reveals that its commitment to Asia is self-serving, and only skin-deep.
The Orphan of Zhao is being played in repertory with two other plays, Pushkin’s Boris Godunov and Brecht’s Life of Galileo, and the justification for this ‘diverse, colourblind’ casting is that all actors must be suitable for all three plays. But none of the East Asian actors in the ensemble have leading roles in any of the three plays, taking on subservient roles in all of them. The title role of The Orphan of Zhao is played by Jake Fairbrother, yet it seems unimaginable that the RSC would have one of the East Asian actors play Boris or Galileo.
So the RSC are saying it is OK to have a white actor play a leading Chinese character but a Chinese actor can play a white character only as long as it is minor and hidden away; that Chinese people can’t tell a white story but they are now not even permitted to tell their own story either. Newsflash – it is only ‘diverse’ if the colourblindness is two-way traffic.
If it wasn’t for artistic director Gregory Doran’s initiallly calling such feeling ‘sour grapes’ in an interview, then his subsequent statement (which may or may not have been the reason the RSC website crashed within an hour of its issue) would be much more welcomed than viewed as mere lip service.
If this casting really is based on talent, then you really have to ask why there are so few ‘suitable’ actors from the East Asian diaspora that can take on a ‘lead’ role. Even when there is talent, there is often not very many opportunities to showcase them and a lot of the time talent comes second to race suitability.
Incidentally, while this story exploded I was on a trip to Chicago. In the week that I was in the States, I have seen more East Asians in mainstream media than the 19 years that I have been in the UK. I think this deserves the hashtag #justsaying.
There has now been several articles in the national press, a Radio 4 interview from both sides, coverage in the LA Times, call from the actor’s union Equity for an industry wide debate and growing support for such genuine indignation; indicative of strength of feeling. Not so silent now. This is now far beyond the realms of one company, one production; this is a concern reflective of our society.
One comment from an ‘internet contributor’ (troll) stated that there wasn’t any need for such visibility for East Asians as “aside from Hong Kong, we never really colonised your end of the world”. If having ‘ethnics’ in mainstream consciousness is done out of colonial guilt rather than viewing us as just people and not ‘people of colour’, then we have a long long way to go.
Jonathan, it does take a lot for us to stand up and speak up, especially in the arts (you know, as if Asians can do THAT?!).
The debate is all about inclusivity and equality. It’s an effort that needs everyone to acknowledge, especially leading prestigious theatre companies like the RSC.
I’ve said many times that the East Asian community in Britain is almost invisible.
To a certain extent that’s cultural – around the world the overseas Chinese in particular have generally adopted a policy of keeping a low profile and staying out of trouble. Even in Malaysia, a country where I spent five years reporting and where the Malaysian Chinese community makes up around a quarter of the population, it takes a lot to bring them out on the streets. The hottest flashpoint is education. Threaten Chinese language schools and people get really angry.
Unless the rest of us make a positive effort to stand up and say to our fellow citizens of East Asian and South East Asian origin ‘get involved. You contribute to our lives here we need to you make your voices heard’ then I fear that the old tendency towards keeping one’s head down and not making a fuss will continue to result in East Asian Britons being overlooked, undervalued and downright ignored. That would be an enormous loss to us all.
It’s bad that this sort of whitewashing is still happening. 🙁
But it’s good that people are finally talking about it. As long as something is actually done about it as well.
“aside from Hong Kong, we never really colonised your end of the world
Wow. That’s not even historically accurate…