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.