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…….