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Life with Lavendar in London town

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Yellow Face

The Husband was making small talk with me last week as we sat in the cinema waiting for the start of Rogue One (which I enjoyed immensely by the way).

If a play is set in China, contains characters that have Chinese names and are described as Chinese, do you think that Chinese actors should be cast in those roles?

What do you mean? I replied. What's the context?

He went on to fill me in on the controversy surrounding a play called In the Depths of Dead Love being staged at The Print Room in Notting Hill.  Written by Howard Barker, the play is set in Ancient China featuring characters that are purportedly Chinese. Here are the characters' names. What do you think?

  • Mrs Hu
  • Lord Ghang
  • Chin
  • Lady Hasi

The controversy has arisen because the play's director, Gerrard McArthur has cast an all -Anglo cast with nary a Chinese actor in sight. Andrew Keates, theatre director of the upcoming play, Chinglish, has taken exception to this and drawn media attention to what he considers is inappropriate casting.  In an open letter posted on his Twitter feed, Mr Keates wrote:

Your entire cast are all clearly Caucasian actors when the characters are written to be Chinese. You must not endorse this racist, outdated and unnecessary practice of 'yellowface' and instead find actors who are appropriate.

In response to all the media attention, The Print Room released a statement which claims that although the play is set in China containing characters with Chinese names, that no-one should be offended because the Chinese aspect within the play is just an 'allusion' and was never 'intended to be taken literally.'

Is it all a storm in a teacup? Is Andrew Keates simply using the whitewashing of this play to promote his own play, Chinglish, which does contain British Asian actors. Did Howard Barker never intend for his play to be about Chinese people? And even if he did, shouldn't it be a director's discretion to interpret a play how s/he wishes to? For example, why can't King Lear be a woman if a director wants to cast the role as such? Or Othello Irish for that matter?

Isn't art about vision and interpretation and sometimes, pushing the boundaries of what has gone on before?

I have not read In the Depths of Dead Love (and cannot find a free copy on the web to read) so can't comment on whether I think Barker wrote a play about Chinese people or not. The question begs however that if not, why did he set the play in China with Chinese characters?

It is a fact that Chinese actors are grossly under-represented in Western mainstream theatre and film. Try counting on two hands the number of well-known Chinese actors in mainstream media and you will struggle to find ten. There is no excuse for this apart from the absolute lack of vision on behalf of directors and writers in film and theatre.  The roles for Caucasians are numerous, it is the status quo, whilst roles written specifically for Chinese characters are next to none. It is not an even playing ground. Therefore whilst I think art should be a matter of interpretation, I do believe it is wrong to cast Caucasian actors in roles written for Chinese characters.

Chimerica
One of  the best plays I have seen showcasing an exceptional  British Asian cast

My own experience has led me to this conclusion. Growing up in a Caucasian society, my role models in film and media were Anglo-Saxons. I could not change my heritage however and my heritage is Chinese. There were no parts for a Chinese kid in the school play. I was told I couldn't be Nancy in Oliver. I couldn't be Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. I certainly couldn't be Mary in the nativity play - gasp! Imagine that. I couldn't be any thing apart from a tree perhaps. Maybe I just sucked at acting.

I was still learning about racism when I experienced all of the above. Later on, when studying drama in my twenties, I found that not much had changed. A theatre director told me he could not cast a Chinese person in a Shakespeare play as I was not white. Instead of being angry, I just felt sorry for him. And I told him so.

When I was little and faced rejection from the school plays that I so wished to participate in, I wrote my own plays instead.  And did my own casting and directing. And then we performed these plays for the school. It was very rewarding.

And that really is the sum of it.

Protesting and speaking out is important but only goes so far.

If what you want to see is not available, then make it available.