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Tuesday, 30 October 2012
The British East Asian Actors group (of which I am one) has issued a statement concerning the recent RSC casting debacle over The Orphan of Zhao.
British East Asian Actors
30th October 2012
The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC)
The Orphan of Zhao
BRITISH EAST ASIAN ACTORS CALL FOR PUBLIC FORUM OVER RSC CASTING CONTROVERSY
British East Asian actors have challenged the Royal Shakespeare Company over the casting in its upcoming production of the classic Chinese play, The Orphan of Zhao by Ji Junxiang. Support for the British East Asian actors has spread globally with statements flooding in from Asian actors’ groups in America, Australia, Canada and other countries; as well as messages of support from theatregoers and the public on the RSC’s Facebook site.
Only three actors of East Asian heritage have been cast out of 17 and none have leading roles in any of plays in the World season trilogy of which The Orphan of Zhao is one. The RSC has only cast an estimated four East Asian actors in the last 20 years.
Actor Daniel York said: "This exclusion has been going on for far too long within the British stage and film industries. Colour-blind casting is a wonderful concept, unfortunately, it’s all one-way traffic. Something has to change. We are asking for fairness and a level playing field."
British East Asian Actors have released the following statement in response.
London, UK - For more than three weeks, we have protested to the RSC and the Arts Council England about the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of the Chinese classic The Orphan of Zhao.
Our concern is that there are only three actors of East Asian descent in a cast which consists mainly of Caucasians but no other Asians. This does not, in our opinion, represent "multi-cultural casting" as the RSC insists it is.
We have identified the following issues:
1) The RSC states that "It's certainly not the case that we've not employed any Chinese or East Asian actors". However, we have only been able to ascertain two actors of East Asian descent employed as part of regular seasons in the past 20 years, as well as two others in standalone productions - a clear shortfall. It also appears that, as far as we can gather, none of the three RSC Winter Season directors has any noticeable track record of employing East Asian actors and, in fact, only Gregory Doran appears to have done so, once, in the last ten years.
2) Of particular concern to us is the under-representation of East Asian actors in what is often described as "the Chinese Hamlet". Unfortunately, this is reflective of the entire UK theatre industry. The RSC assures us that the three East Asian actors (who we wish well) are playing "key" roles. Whilst we value and support all actors and would hope that all roles in a play are "key", none of the three East Asians in this particular production appears to be playing what can be described as a "leading" or "protagonist" role: a character who is central to the action and who drives the play. It is also clear that all three are roughly in the same age demographic and this belies the diversity and experience that exists among British East Asian actors.
3) British East Asian actors wish to participate in their own culture but this is being denied us. We are too often excluded from roles which are not East Asian-specific, yet when roles arise that are, we are also excluded. We applaud colour-blind casting, but colour-blind casting was created as a mechanism to afford more opportunities for all minority actors, not to give additional opportunities to Caucasian actors. At present, colour-blind casting fails British East Asians.
4) The RSC has cited the need to cast actors across three different plays as one reason for the low number of East Asians in the cast. It appears they were unable, for whatever reason, to countenance the idea of British East Asians playing leading roles in works by Ji, Pushkin and Brecht. It appears that white (and in some cases black) actors are able to play Chinese roles but not vice versa.
5) The RSC states that they met "lots and lots" of East Asian actors, yet we have only been able to ascertain eight. Aside from the three who were cast we only know of one who met more than one of the season's directors.
6) The RSC insist they cast "the best actor for the roles available" yet the visibility and quality of work available for the actors chosen to be leading players in the Company simply isn't attainable for actors of East Asian descent. There is no level playing field.
It is clear to us that there is an industry-wide problem regarding the opportunities available for East Asian actors. Too often, actors from our background can only access auditions for poorly-written and stereotyped roles on television that require a heavy emphasis on being "foreign" as opposed to being integrated and three-dimensional members of British society. In the theatre, with the occasional rare exception, we are shut out completely from all but community and children's theatre, with opportunities to appear in classical and mainstream drama extremely rare.
We welcome a time when actors can play across race, gender, class or disability. However, this can only meaningfully occur on a level playing field to which we must ensure we have fair access.
As a publicly-funded company, the RSC has a responsibility to reflect the make-up of society. In order to tear down the limitation on East Asian actors, it is our heartfelt wish to see far more active outreach to our sector. When the Harry Potter film franchise was casting for an actress to play Cho Chang, applicants queued around the block, disproving the notion that people from East Asian backgrounds have no interest in the performing arts. At present, the message being sent out to young people from East Asian backgrounds is that a career on the stage is not available to them.
We welcome greatly the closing paragraph from the RSC's most recent statement on the subject:
"We acknowledge that there is always more to do and recognise our responsibility in this area. We want to explore the rich seam of Chinese drama further, and engage more often with Chinese and East Asian actors. We want to integrate them more regularly on our stages and hope that this production, and indeed this debate, will be a catalyst for that process."
In order to enable this to happen we request:
1) An apology and acknowledgement for the lack of consideration afforded us as an ethnic group with regard to the casting of The Orphan of Zhao and for the way East Asian actors have been marginalised.
2) A public discussion forum to be held in London with Greg Doran and the two directors of the other plays in the trilogy, with speakers of our choosing to represent our case. Similar to that held at La Jolla Playhouse, CA, when comparable controversy occurred with their musical adaptation of The Nightingale, the purpose of this is to enable us to work with the RSC in leading the way for the rest of the industry.
3) Ethnic monitoring of auditionees for both race-specific and non-race-specific roles and for that data to be freely available. We would also like to remind all Arts Council England funded theatre companies of Recommendation 20 from the Eclipse Report which highlighted several recommendations for theatre practice with regard to ethnic minorities including:
"By March 2003, every publicly funded theatre organisation in England will have reviewed its Equal Opportunities policy, ascertained whether its set targets are being achieved and, if not, drawn up a comprehensive Positive Action plan which actively develops opportunities for African Caribbean and Asian practitioners."
For too long East Asians have been left out of "Asia".
4) Further to the above we would like to see a clear measurable target in terms of engaging and developing East Asians actors as you do with a broad range of socio-economic and ethnic minority backgrounds with a view to seeing and casting them in future RSC productions.
5) We feel it is absolutely imperative that there be no "professional reprisals" with regard to any recent comments from within our community. East Asian actors and professionals have shown great courage speaking out about the clear inequality that currently exists within our profession, and we would like that to be respected. Too often, there exists a climate of fear in the arts world and we feel this is detrimental to free speech as well as to fundamental human rights.
We hope very much that we can all move forward together and gain greater understanding for the future. We look forward to working with the RSC, a company for which we all have the fondest love and respect.
British East Asian Actors
30th October 2012
Dr. Broderick D.V. Chow - Lecturer in Theatre, Brunel University, London
Paul Hyu – Artistic Director, Mu-Lan Theatre Co; Equity Minority Ethnic Members’ Committee member
Hi Ching – Director, River Cultures
Lucy Miller – Associate Director, True Heart Theatre
Dr. Amanda Rogers - Lecturer in Human Geography, Swansea University
The BEAA would like to correct erroneous reports in the press that the statement was written by Equity. It wasn't. As the statement says clearly, this is a statement by the British East Asian Actors group. This group is made up of academics, East Asian actors and representatives of East Asian Theatre groups in the UK. Two of the signatories are on the (Equity BAME committee) but the other nine are not.
The article that kicked it all off: RSC casts Asians as dog and maid in Chinese classic.
Anna's review of The Orphan of Zhao in the Morning Star.
Review by academic Amanda Rogers.
Friday, 26 October 2012
I click my fingers and ... you're back in the 1950s. It looks as if the culture wars are well and truly on with some utterly barking casting decisions being made across ye olde Western Empire. In Britain, Germany and America, Mighty Whitey is asserting its last remnants of power in a changing world, like a dinosaur thrashing in its death throes.
On the frontline, catching the bronto tail full in the chops, are the East Asians, with the Royal Shakespeare Company giving only three out of 17 roles in their adaptation of the ancient Chinese play, The Orphan of Zhao by Ji Junxiang, to actors of Asian heritage: two to work a puppet dog and one to a maid who dies. No lead roles went to East Asians, with one reason given for the paucity of limelight on offer being that it is running alongside Bertold Brecht's Gallileo and Alexander Pushkin's Boris Godunov.
Sadly, as no Asians are considered "Godunov" to play white characters, numbers had to be kept down across the other two plays. Never mind that Pushkin was part Ethiopean, we have to continue the fantasy that real civilised arts come from white males and everything else is ersatz.
In Germany, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Bruce Norris retracted the rights to his play, Clybourne Park, when the German company cast a white actor to play a black woman in blackface make-up.
And now we have a proper throwback to yellowface complete with taped-up eyes in Cloud Atlas. All the main male roles in futuristic South Korea are played by white actors Jim Sturgess, James D'Arcy and Hugo Weaving.
This is particularly sad because co-director Larry Wachowski is now Lana following her gender reassignment. You'd hope that she'd have been sensitive to other minorities struggling to be seen and respected. Lana and Andy Wachowski create a world where you can have "cannibals, parasitic brain worms and an artichoke that shoots laser beams" — the full bells-and-whistles panoply of screen trickery — but they can't imagine East Asians playing East Asians.
It's like the La Jolla Playhouse public debate over The Nightingale never happened.
What's their excuse? That they don't have great — and I mean GREAT! — East Asian actors? Think of Grace Park, Daniel Dae Kim and Lucy Liu breaking new ground as Dr Watson in the new US TV Sherlock Holmes series, Elementary. Couldn't they have found one to join in the cross-race fun? Is white the default universal mode? [Edit: Kathryn Golding says there is an Asian woman who plays a white bloke, so it's not completely awful.]
The guiding principle(!)of some of the deadheads running things seems to be, "What's ours is ours and what's yours is ours as well, slant-features." Don't you want your world enriched by the amazing diversity out there? Do you have to keep on insulting us and pretending we don't exist in your shrinking imagination?
Oh FUCK RIGHT OFF!
Looking like a Romulan left over from Star Trek: Nemesis, Hugo Weaving should stick to Elves and Matrix software, about as real as the Korean folk into whom he's supposed to be breathing life on the big screen.
Remember: "First they came for the East Asians but, because I wasn't East Asian and was doing all right by Boss Man and had landed a juicy role in The Orphan of Zhao, I went into crush-kill-destroy mode on the RSC Facebook thread, swatting the little yellow people out of the way. Then, emboldened, they made with the blackface and I was out of a job."
Royal Shakespeare Company's casting fiasco for The Orphan of Zhao.
Here is his article — Two dogs and a maid — which he posted on Friday 19th October at his Dangerology website.
Here is his article — Two dogs and a maid — which he posted on Friday 19th October at his Dangerology website.
TWO DOGS AND A MAID: THEATRICALITY, VISIBILITY, AND THE ROYAL SHAKESPEARE COMPANY’S THE ORPHAN OF ZHAO
In 2005, I played the role of Thuy, a Viet Cong commissar and the betrothed cousin of the female lead, Kim, in the Arts Club Theatre’s production of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s mega-musical Miss Saigon, in Vancouver, Canada. The musical is an adaptation by two French men of the opera Madama Butterfly, itself a piece of flagrant orientalism by Puccini, an Italian composer. Transposing the action of Madama Butterfly from 1904 Nagasaki to the Vietnam War, Miss Saigon has been both lauded for its hyperreal spectacle (including the famous ‘helicopter scene’) and denounced for its paternalistic and colonial attitude towards Southeast Asia (the bar girls, the scene in Bangkok, and yes, the same old suicide). At the time, I was aware of the arguments against the piece (my cousin Elaine had written a rather scathing essay on it for her Women’s Studies class at SFU) but, to be honest, I didn’t let it bother me. It was a job. And furthermore, it was a job for me.
Here’s the thing: Vancouver, as it is well known, has a large East Asian and South Asian population, including a high percentage of first, second, third and fourth generation Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, South Asian, Korean, and Vietnamese immigrants. Out of this Asian Canadian community, some of us are actors. When the Arts Club – being Vancouver’s largest non-touring, ‘homegrown’, theatre company – announced Miss Saigon as its summer show, our community of Asian Canadian actors couldn’t believe our luck. Finally, we thought. Here is a show for us. Here is a show about Asia. Here is visibility. It’s fairly easy to feel invisible as an actor of East Asian origin – after all, the roles we tended to audition for were generally predicated on their rather marginal visibility: the computer guy, the drug dealer (who hides away in the shadows), the waiter. Or rather, maybe we felt silent. After all, these roles were often S.O.C. (Silent-on-Camera), and anyway, isn’t that the stereotype? Aren’t we quiet? Shy? Inscrutable? Emotionless?
But here was a show where Asian Canadian bodies were visible, in often exploitative states of undress, in feats of dance and acrobatics, but also noisy, loud. We were no longer silent: we sang full-throated and raw. This was a piece in which a small Vietnamese peasant girl belts the lines: ‘A song / played on a solo saxophone / a crazy sound / a lonely sound / a cry, that tells us love / goes on and on.’ No cod-Vietnamese accent. No broken English. Just melodramatic sentimentality combined with a rather lovely melody and a virtuosic performance.
I played Thuy for three months, and loved it. Despite only appearing in the first act, this was a great character, with a spectacular and indulgently melismatic death scene. After the show closed, however, I felt a nagging suspicion: what if this is as good as it gets? After Thuy, who? The guy in Flower Drum Song? Or wait until the gods of colour-blind casting deign to ‘reflect Canada’s multicultural heritage’ and throw us a bone? Two months after the show closed I moved to London to begin a Master’s Degree at Central School of Speech & Drama, the first step on the path to my current role as Lecturer in Theatre Studies at Brunel University.
I offer this story as a way of understanding, from the inside, the complex and often conflicted feelings felt by actors of Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) origin when confronted with works that embody colonial, orientalist, and downright racist attitudes. I know Miss Saigon is pretty offensive. History is going to prove that bar scene as one of the most egregious combinations of racism and misogyny in musical theatre. But deep down, I still love it, as do, I will bet you, many people of East and Southeast Asian origin (though not my cousin Elaine). It launched the international career of the Filipino actress and singer Lea Salonga – just as in the 1910s, the Japanese singer Miura Tamaki rose to fame playing Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly. The relation between racist and colonialist stage works and the BAME actors who take part in these works is complicated, and I believe has to do with the dual nature of the theatre as a space of visibility and invisibility, of representation and the real, and of make-believe and truth.
What happens, then, when we encounter a theatre work that seems so calculated as to deny visibility to those persons it supposedly represents? The work in question is the Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Orphan of Zhao, which opens at The Swan in Stratford-upon-Avon on 30 October 2012. As has been already reported by bloggers including British-Chinese poet/writer Anna Chen and British-Chinese actress and associate director of True Heart Theatre Lucy Sheen, The Orphan of Zhao is an adaptation of a 13th Century Yuan Dynasty ‘zaju’ (mixed-drama) by Ji Junxiang, adapted by writer James Fenton. It is, apparently, the first work of this Chinese dramatic form to be translated into English.
(Here is a show for us. Here is a show about China. Here is visibility.)
As if learning nothing from the scandal that surrounded the La Jolla Playhouse and their production of The Nightingale, an original musical set in ‘mythic China’ (whatever that is), the RSC’s Artistic Director (and director of The Orphan of Zhao) Gregory Doran has chosen to cast, out of 17 roles, only 3 actors of East Asian origin. Worse still, these three actors play two halves of a dog, and a maid. There are other BAME actors in the play, but all major roles are played by white actors. Despite this, the RSC’s publicity for the production depicts a young boy of East Asian origin, and the company is courting Chinese audiences, with a information on the play given in Chinese on the website (after all, Chinese people only like to see Chinese things, and eat Chinese food, and, I don’t know, go around holding chrysanthemums). Needless to say, this racist casting decision hasn’t been without controversy, though this controversy has been somewhat invisible – Chen points out that Anglo-Chinese actor Daniel York*, who is Equity’s BAME representative, has been trying for months to elicit a response from the RSC without luck. On 19 October 2012, in response to increasing pressure online, the RSC issued a lukewarm non-response, which can be found here.
I don’t want to summarise previous arguments or the debate as a whole, but rather to offer a personal and analytical response on why the RSC’s casting decision bothers me so much.
What The Orphan of Zhao’s white-washing feels like is Miss Saigon in reverse. Miss Saigon is an orientalist work because it was written by two white French man, and directed by a white English man, who depicted a fundamentally orientalist narrative in which a Vietnamese girl falls in love with an American (white) soldier, is left, has a child, and kills herself in grief upon discovery that her GI has a new wife. On Youtube you can find footage of a very young Lea Salonga auditioning for the part of Kim. The image of a young Filipina in Catholic white, hair tied back and decorated with sampa gita (the Philippines’ national flower, a small white blossom), singing in a fantastically clear and resonant mezzo-soprano, looked on by a table of middle-aged white men, including National Theatre Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner, is very familiar. It is an image of exoticism. Boublil and Schönberg attempt to represent a reality of the East from a Western position of enunciation. The device through which they do this is spectacle. Asian bodies, as I have said before, are made (literally) visible, they are readable and audible. While the content of the representation itself may be problematic, Miss Saigon as a theatrical form makes Asian bodies present.*
The Orphan of Zhao, on the other hand, is a classic Chinese text. Its position of enunciation, the place from where it speaks, is China. In adapting the text, The RSC, a British company are engaging in an act of appropriation. To their credit, I don’t think the RSC are unaware of this, in fact, Gregory Doran has written blogs on going to China, and engaging in research and so on. What their failure to consider the visibility of Asian performers in this production is a failure to understand the very nature of theatre, and the real effects beyond representation that theatre’s choices in terms of what is seen and what can be seen (its mise-en-scène) can have.
The ontology of theatre is dual – it is at once a form that trades in representation, illusions, shades, but at the same time it accomplishes these things through the real, through an organisation of bodies, materials, and images. This is what the French philosopher Jacques Rancière calls the ‘distribution of the sensible.’ Art, and by extension, theatre, for Rancière, may create representations, it may be false, it may be make-believe, but its effects are no less real, because it helps to establish common modes of perception. To read theatre as a distribution of the sensible means that it establishes what is and isn’t able to be visible or represented, in the ‘common sense’ (and here I use sense in its dual meaning, of both a perception through the senses, and the meaning or understanding that arises therefrom). These common modes of perception are important because they structure what Rancière calls the ‘police order’, which means the set of unspoken but understood rules that determine certain roles in society. Such elisions between the representational mode of art and the social field are pretty evident when we consider even the word representation – the ‘asylum seeker’ is a figure only represented in a certain way, while those seeking asylum in the UK increasingly have less and less recourse to legal representation. When aesthetics structures what can be seen and heard in the field of art, it is also structures in social life, how we perceive who may appear, speak, participate in democracy.
Back to The Orphan of Zhao, Doran’s casting choice represents an artistic gesture that effectively reproduces, rather than challenges, the existing distribution of the sensible, in which East Asians are typically seen as the ‘model minority’: high-achieving, but silent, and especially, compliant. Doran is perfectly within his rights to cast as he wishes, but he should be aware of the way his piece reproduces the status quo. Take the example of the character of the ‘Demon Mastiff.’ Played by Siu Hun Li, Chris Lew Kum Hoi (both of apparently Chinese origin) and Joan Iyiola (a black actor), the Demon Mastiff is described by the RSC in their ‘clarification’ in response to the controversy, as a ‘spectacular piece of puppetry.’ On the level of representation, on the make-believe level of theatre, perhaps. Perhaps I will be thrilled to see these three actors operate a demon dog puppet so as to create the illusion of a real animal. But on the level of the sensible, I will also be aware that I am watching three actors of colour three levels removed from visibility and speech – they are speaking (if they speak) through an avatar, they are three represented as one, they are visible through an avatar that is meant to draw our attention away from the material evidence of their Otherness, their bodies. I will be aware that these actors of colour are not in a position in which they are made visible, present, and importantly, heard. This is not the case for Lucy Briggs-Owen, who plays The Princess — she, on the other hand is able to be visible, and to speak, without the mediation of a puppet. This position of voiceless-ness and removal from visibility reproduces the police order by which those most seen and heard, are white, with minority ethnic persons relegated to existing roles.
The RSC’s response to the controversy was pretty lukewarm and insufficient, but very telling*. They tell us that: ‘we are always aiming to reflect the diverse population of the UK’, and there we have it, it is indeed a reflection – a reproduction. ‘The multi-cultural make-up of our winter season company reflects British society.’ Indeed it does, very well, right down to the entrenched prejudice that is felt by BAME persons all the time. The response attempts to portray the RSC as progressive and global, noting that The Orphan of Zhao ‘originally came from China, and has since been revived, adapted and explored by many writers across the world.’ If true, this doesn’t explain why then the RSC would choose to play up the Chinese angle, by using its online and print marketing to reach out to a Chinese audience, and by fetishizing a boy with East Asian appearance on its publicity image – and then committing the old hypocrisy of folding all this back into old hegemonic casting practices.
In summary, I respect Doran’s right to artistic expression. But I believe he has made the wrong choice, and a very damaging one. Certainly he has done nothing to alter our ‘common modes of perception’, unless, perhaps, we count the number of Asian writers and artists making noise against the RSC, and the growing lines of affinity to other communities that have also experienced such invisibility. The only proper response at this point by the RSC would be to acknowledge that hurt has been caused – this uproar isn’t a moan, a complaint, it’s a response to genuine hurt. To be told that the ‘best person for the part’ of ‘Chinese Princess’ is a white woman, is deeply wounding. But it happens all the time. (Jason Chu’s poem Colourblind has a great list of examples).
I don’t really think about race very often. I don’t believe I experience racism very often on a daily basis. When I perform, in my dance work with a white male performer, I don’t believe we are perceived through the lens of race, and audience feedback bears this out. But every so often I will be reminded that while I may not be confronted with racism on a personal or individual level, there is still systemic, entrenched racism in Western society. The white-washing of ‘our’ works of art, be they The Orphan of Zhao or the proposed American remake of Akira, isn’t malicious on some individual level, it’s systemic. But systemic racism is still felt as racism. White-washing reproduces the common mode of perception that the default position of speech and visibility is a white man or woman. It takes away the little thrill of ‘here is a story for me.’
When I was an actor in Vancouver moaning about auditioning for another take-away driver or something where I had to speak broken English, the advice everyone gave was ‘well, stop complaining and start making your own work.’ Good advice. I guess that’s what I ended up doing. I think most actors of colour should follow it. The way to truly engage and challenge the ‘distribution of the sensible’ is not to pine away for the fabled contract at the RSC or 6 months in Miss Saigon. It is to stop saying ‘here is a story for me’ and to start saying ‘here is my story.’
- 19 October 2012
Dr Broderick Chow, Lecturer in Theatre Studies, Brunel University London, and co-founder of dance and physical theatre duo the Dangerologists.
* Daniel York has worked with the RSC before. But, amazingly, he is the only actor of Chinese origin to be cast by the RSC in 20 years. The RSC often blazes a trail for colour-blind casting, having produced an all-black Julius Caesar and an Indian production of Much Ado About Nothing, but they really seem to dislike Chinese people.
* The singing voice in Miss Saigon is an interesting issue, as all characters, no matter what race or ethnicity, sing in an Anglo-American accent, without resorting to broken English. The voice is thus a leveller that perhaps marks out Miss Saigon as an early piece of the theatre of globalisation.
* Although their defense of ‘The Maid’, played by Susan Momoko Hingley, is pretty funny: ‘”The Maid” is one of the key roles in the play. She stands up to tyranny and is executed.’ Because of course, a good death scene, like Thuy’s, makes all the difference. And doesn’t their description sound like Tuptim in The King and I?
Tuesday, 23 October 2012
Statement released by AAPAC today on Facebook. Wonderful solidarity from our American bredren. This is so fantastically moving. I feel I am learning so much about these issues — a very fruitful time for all of us.
AAPAC PROTESTS THE RSC. ACTION NEEDED!
AAPAC (Asian American Performers Action Coalition) stands in support of our British East Asian colleagues in their outrage over the Royal Shakespeare Company’s current production of James Fenton’s adaptation of The Orphan of Zhao. Originally written by 13th century Chinese dramatist Ji Junxiang, this production, directed by RSC’s artistic director Gregory Doran, has followed in the footsteps of La Jolla Playhouse’s recent production of Sater and Sheik’s The Nightingale, in that out of 17 actors in the cast, only 3 are of East Asian descent.
The cast of Orphan will also perform plays by Pushkin and Brecht in repertory as part of a season. Doran has publicly stated prior to today that though "the RSC has led the way in non-culturally specific casting,” there was “no way I was going to do this with an exclusively Chinese cast that would then go through to those other plays.” He has publicly justified this by saying that Orphan isn’t a “specific Chinese play,” its characters are not “race-specific,” nor does it have a “Chinese context.” However, their press materials use an East Asian child’s face as the visual centerpiece, with this wording: “Sometimes referred to as the Chinese Hamlet […], The Orphan of Zhao was the first Chinese play to be translated in the West.” Doran not only traveled to China to research it, he hired Dr. Li Ruru, a Chinese expert on Shakespeare, to teach Chinese concepts and movement to the cast, and James Fenton studied Chinese poetry and theatrical traditions when adapting the original piece.
Doran is also quoted as saying they auditioned “lots and lots” of East Asian Actors, that in some cases offers were made to EA actors but were turned down, and that ultimately he had to “choose not based on ethnicity but on the best actor for the role.”
Yesterday, October 22, the RSC issued a public apology in which they state, “We commissioned our World Elsewhere season in order to explore great plays from world culture […] recognising that much of this rich seam of drama has been largely ignored in the West, and certainly by British theatre." They also state that they “intend to present The Orphan of Zhao in our own way, just as a theatre company in China might explore Shakespeare […] we want to approach the play with a diverse cast and develop our own ways of telling this ancient story and thus explore its universality."
The contradictory and fallacious nature of Doran’s various remarks points to their disingenuousness. Playwright David Henry Hwang says: “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. During the Miss Saigon casting controversy in 1991, producer Cameron Mackintosh claimed that he had conducted a 'world wide talent search' to cast the role of the Eurasian Engineer, before selecting Jonathan Pryce. Several years later, the musical's director, Nick Hytner, revealed to me that there had never been any such search at all, that Mackintosh's public assertion had been a complete fabrication. In light of this history, when self-righteous theatres defensively claim to have conducted thorough auditions before denying acting opportunities to minority actors, I believe the burden of proof, at the very least, falls on those producers."
Veteran British East Asian actress Tsai Chin states, “It was such good news when I heard the RSC was putting on a Chinese play, a great classic written a few centuries before Shakespeare. It is deeply disappointing to learn that only a few East Asians have been cast in the production [...] My British training gave me a solid foundation to pursue a successful career in the UK for a few decades, for which I am extremely thankful. However, it was when I went to America that I could extend my potential further by being given chances to play great roles in western classics, which empowered me to expand my acting career to more than half a century. It is therefore heartbreaking to discover that nothing seems to have changed back home, and that the younger generations at the helm of British theatre in the 21st century are still lagging behind the times by hanging on to old-fashioned ways of treating East Asian actors […] As the head of the British Theatre, meaning the crown of world theatre, surely it is [the RSC’s] responsibility to be the example for our profession and beyond.”
Doran seeks to claim multi-racial casting as shorthand for universality without realizing that for decades, casts consisting of one race – white Caucasian – have been regarded as universal simply because it reflects the majority. And he hopes an apology will excuse actions that both exploit China’s cultural legacy and yet deny the heirs to that legacy the opportunity to represent their culture onstage. We at AAPAC submit that the universality of a piece will be tested by the strength of its writing and performances regardless of actors' ethnicities. In the words of Dr. Broderick Chow, a performer and Lecturer of Theatre Studies at London’s Brunel University, his “failure to consider the visibility of Asian performers in this production is a failure to understand the very nature of theatre, and the real effects beyond representation that theatre’s choices in terms of what is seen and what can be seen can have.”
We believe New York artists should be concerned because The RSC is coming to New York City in two different ways:
·The RSC is producing Matilda the Musical this season on Broadway and casting is happening now.
·The RSC’s Young People’s Shakespeare production of King Lear in collaboration with the NYC Department of Education is playing now to more than 1,000 New York City public school students.
Will they bring their practice of exclusion with them?
Here’s what you can do:
1) Post a comment on the RSC Facebook Page (www.facebook.com/thersc) or tweet them at @thersc.
2) Write Dennis Walcott, Chancellor of the NYC Department of Education to say you do not support the RSC’s casting decisions of The Orphan of Zhao and will not tolerate predominantly white casts for NYC school productions. Write to him at: http://schools.nyc.gov/ContactDOE/ChancellorMessage.htm
The article that kicked it all off: RSC casts Asians as dog and maid in Chinese classic.
Read academic Amanda Rogers who asks who owns culture, and questions if this is "a simple exoticism via an engagement with a culturally different form"?
Monday, 22 October 2012
This morning the Guardian online published my comment piece under the title: Memo to the RSC: east Asians can be more than just dogs and maids
It's no fun being bred out of the cultural gene pool. Watching TV, theatre or film, I'm on constant alert for a glimpse of someone who looks Chinese, for the slightest resemblance to an estimated 499,999 others like me living in the UK.
Barring Gok Wan, scientist Kevin Fong and the odd TV chef, UK Chinese are virtually absent from mainstream media. So it was with a sense of "here we go again" that we learned that the esteemed Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) is mounting the classic play The Orphan of Zhao in the way prize trophies usually get mounted: gutted and stuffed. This 13th-century Yuan-dynasty masterpiece may be the first Chinese play, to make it to the hallowed RSC, but the only parts given to actors of east Asian heritage are two dogs. And a maid-servant. Who dies. Tragically.
Yes, out of 17 roles in the classic known to Eurocentrics as "the Chinese Hamlet", a grand total of three have gone to Asians. Another dog is played by a black actor, making you wonder exactly what the RSC is trying to say.
All director Gregory Doran came up with is that the blizzard of complaints is a case of "sour grapes", and that the critics should "get real"; not the most eloquent response you might expect from the intellectual heavyweight described as "one of the finest Shakespeareans of his generation". Any finer, and he might appreciate why casting Asians as dogs and a maid – the latter dying in the most tiresome Madame Butterfly tradition – might elicit consternation. Quite rightly, "blackface" was long ago laughed out of court on the grounds that it not only challenges credulity but is also both ludicrous and demeaning to all parties concerned. Yellowface, however, apparently remains acceptable and credible. Why?
Had Doran remembered the lessons learned by director Peter Brook when he cast a range of ethnicities in his well-intentioned 1980s film and stage adaptations of the Indian epic Mahabharata and was forced to face his own ideological assumptions in the ensuing row, he might have trodden more sensitively instead of crashing in like a 19th-century colonialist after our tea and silks.
Only last year in the US, La Jolla Playhouse felt compelled to hold a public debate after it was caught having cast a mere two of the roles in the Chinese story, The Nightingale, as Asian, and one of them was a bird.
Cheekily, the RSC targets Chinese audiences (and their growing disposable wealth) in their marketing – with adverts in Chinese and a poster featuring a Chinese kid who looks nothing like the actors playing the main roles in the show – so we know it can make the effort when it wants to. Playwright David Henry Hwang of the Asian American Performers Action Coalition which fought in the Nightingale battle, says: "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."
Once again: why? The RSC casting is something of a litmus test, indicating how a failing superpower asserts its cultural dominance when its economic base is disintegrating. It may no longer operate under cold war rules to consciously exclude representations of the upstart Chinese, or feel pressured to depict us as Fu Manchu monstrosities (except for the hideously backward BBC Sherlock episode The Blind Banker, replete with oriental lowlifes and lotus blossoms). But, as George Orwell pointed out, you don't need a whipped dog when a well-trained one will do.
Such minds are hard-wired to eliminate an entire group's cultural representation, and they don't even realise it. Amanda Rogers of Swansea University, says: "As a national company they have a responsibility to represent all sectors of British society. There is a real paucity of east Asian representation in this country, and when we do see it, it is usually confined to minor or stereotypical roles."
One danger is that, the more a minority is presented as a blank canvas, the easier it is to project all sorts of rubbish on to it.
It's a shame that James Fenton, with his progressive track record, allows his adaptation of The Orphan of Zhao to be cast along colonialist lines. As a component of the establishment's entertainment wing shaping our perceptions and feelings, the RSC continues to airbrush us out of the picture, ready to be re-inserted into the frame only when villains are required. Whipped dog, well-trained one or puppet: you have to ask the old question: cui bonio?
Anna's review of The Orphan of Zhao in the Morning Star.
Review by academic Amanda Rogers.
Sunday, 21 October 2012
Here's Yellowface, a poem I wrote in 2009 after making a programme for BBC Radio 4 about Anna May Wong, and seeing the same old crap happening in British theatre. The comment that it no longer happens is ironic. Sadly.
So what's new, pussycat? Apart from the Royal Shakespeare Company being engaged robustly on their thread concerning the casting of The Orphan of Zhao.
Seems the RSC has hired a Chinese academic from Leeds University to give a one-day course for Sixth Form and Undergraduate students on a play whose first British production writes out Chinese people.
Ironically, the course looks at: "... the ideas of sacrifice, friendship, bravery, justice and evil embedded in this revenge play."
I hope that Dr Li will reconsider her involvement now that these issues have been raised. Is it acceptable to teach young theatre audiences to accept their own invisibility, collude in their own exclusion or accept the elimination of their classmates and friends in the culture? These might make interesting topics for course participants to ponder.
Elsewhere, US playwright David Henry Hwang of the Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC) has issued this statement on the production:
"The ORPHAN OF ZHAO casting controversy says less about Britain's Asian acting community, that it does about the RSC's laziness and lack of artistic integrity. Early in my career, when I wrote Asian characters, production teams in America often had to expend extra effort to find Asian actors to play them. Yet they did so, both to maintain artistic authenticity and to provide opportunities for actors who are virtually never allowed to even audition for 'white' roles. 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 only skin-deep."
Anglo-Chinese actor and Equity BAME rep Daniel York gave a sterling performance on BBC Radio 4's Front Row (about 13 minutes in) on Friday. Gregory Doran was less impressive, being quite evasive about whether he'd cast a white person as black African.
For overseas friends who can't listen to iPlayer, I've transcribed most of Doran's interview.
Greg Doran: We adopt a policy of non-culturally specific casting ... cast the best actor in the roles.
Interviewer asks if they were doing a Nigerian Yoruba mythology play alongside Pushkin and Brecht, would you ever consider casting a white caucasian person in one of those Nigerian roles?
GD: It would be a very specific case if I was doing them as part of a season. If I was doing Death & the King's Horseman in a particular way then I might consider that in the way that Rufus Norris at the National had some of the black actors white up to play certain other parts. So, no, if I was doing a specific Chinese play in a Chinese context the Miss Saigon theory would apply and I wouldn't necessarily want to be casting a white actor if it was a race-specific role.
Interviewer asks about accusations of not casting east Asians in the lead roles.
GD: No, that's not the case. I've heard this bandied around that we cast them as maids and dogs. Well, there is a character called "The Maid". She is one of the eight righteous people who protect the Orphan of Zhao in the way that Malvolio is a servant. I suppose you could say that. The Maid is one of the main characters, and indeed, the three Asian actors specific to this production do an awful lot of things throughout the show including at one point play a demon mastiff which is a highly skilled piece of puppetry which two of them are engaged and involved in.
I found the mention of the Rufus Norris play a tad misleading. Luckily, I saw Death and the King's Horseman at the National. It was utterly brilliant and dealt with issues of colonialist dominance and the nature of man, so the whiting up was a powerful tool — Brechtian alienation actually making a point — and not the mere convenience that the Orphan of Zhao casting is. Also, the casting allowed a multitude of black actors to take to the stage — they were phenomenal!
First response last Wednesday from me and actress Lucy Sheen: 3/17, dog and maid.
My article on the RSC The Orphan of Zhao casting now up at the Guardian website.
My review of The Orphan of Zhao in the Morning Star.
Review by academic Amanda Rogers.
Wednesday, 17 October 2012
The news that the revered Royal Shakespeare Company has not only given a measly three out of 17 roles in their production of the Chinese classic, The Orphan of Zhao, to Asian actors, but that these parts are for two dogs and a maid, has quite gasted my flabber. None of the main roles are played by Asians.[EDIT: two of the three asians and one black actor are working ONE puppet dog.]
We've been rowing about this for months alongside Anglo-Chinese actor and Equity BAME representative Daniel York who is leading the charge. [Edit: Daniel says the third out of three demon dogs is a black actor while all the main roles are white. WTF with the non-white non-human depictions?] His attempts to elicit a grown-up response from the RSC and the Arts Council have so far resulted in a condescending brush-off and a reprimand from the powers-that-be.
Yes, cross-racial casting is a wonderful idea— the problem is that it's all one-way traffic. What happened to diversity? Note the use of a Chinese kid in their promo material (above). If they actually had the courage of their questionable conviction, they'd surely have illustrated their wares with one of their leading actors. Instead, they lack the smarts to understand why courting Chinese audiences is going down like a cup of cold sick. They want our money but not us, and certainly not our involvement as equals in this Vale of Tears.
It's a shame that writer James Fenton, who has an impressive track-record as a progressive, has allowed the casting of his adaptation to be done along such colonialist lines. I always thought he was an anti-imperialist and all that entails.
I doubt we'd see the pillars of the culture pulling these stunts with the African-Caribbean or south Asian communities because they know they'd be exposed as something akin to white supremacists perpetuating dominance of the culture instead of using public funds to advance our consciousness beyond its current sorry state and represent everyone fairly.
Lucy Sheen, British Chinese actress and associate director of True Heart Theatre, writes:
At the end of the month The RSC will be staging an adaptation of The Orphan of Zhao.'“To right an injustice, no sacrifice is too great.” While this concept doesn’t quite sit right with our modern sensibilities, it’s the underlying theme of the Chinese play “The Orphan of Zhao” ( 赵氏孤儿), the origins of which can be traced back to 600-500 B.C.' Lara Owen talks to writer James Fenton.
This is a Chinese classic from the Yuan period thought to have been penned by the 13th century writer Ji Junxiang (紀君祥). Not much known about Ji Junxiang. He was born in present day Beijing and wrote six plays. Only one of his works has survived and that is Yuanbao yuan Zhao shi gu'er - The (great) Revenge of the orphan Zhao ca. 1330 (趙氏孤兒大報仇). This was the first zaju, (Chinese: “mixed drama or play”) to have been translated into the western tongue.
This was one of the major Chinese dramatic forms. Originating as a short variety play from Northern China during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) and during the Yuan dynasty (1206–1368) it developed into a mature four-act dramatic form, in which songs alternate with dialogue.
The fact that the RSC are producing such a work should for the BAME (Black Asian Minority Ethnic) community cause for celebration - so why are not more of us hip, hip hooraying?
Matthew Aubrey - Ti Miming
Adam Burton - The Assassin
Joe Dixon - Tu'an Gu
Jake Fairbrother - Cheng Bo
Lloyd Hutchinson - Han Jue
Youssef Kerkour - Captain of the Guard
Chris Lew Kum Hoi - Ghost of Dr Cheng's Son/Demon Mastiff
Siu Hun Li - Demon Mastiff/Guard
Patrick Romer - Gongsun
James Tucker - Zhao Dun
Graham Turner - Dr Cheng
Stephen Ventura - Emperor Ling
Philip Whitchurch - Wei Jang
Lucy Briggs-Owen - The Princess
Nia Gwynne - Dr Cheng's Wife
Susan Momoko Hingley - Princess' Maid
Joan Iyiola - Demon Mastiff
Out of a cast size of 17 only 3 BEA (British East Asian) have been cast. The three actors that have been cast in the production should be exceedingly proud of their achievement.
But only 3 out of a potential 17!. There are approximately 75 BEA actors and 82 BEA actress all of varying experience, training and expertise. You cannot tell me that from this pool the RSC could not have found at least two major male and female roles for the production?
If this was an adaptation of Liongo I doubt very much whether the Black Afro-Caribbean acting community would idly stand by as the major or pivotal roles were taken by Caucasian actors. I doubt very much whether the RSC when casting such a venture would ever dream of not casting black actors in such a production. So when then should we be any different? Why are the British-Chinese/East Asian not afford the same cultural, ethnic and racial considerations as our fellow Black Afro-Carribean and South Asian colleagues?
Are we so little thought of us? Are we that invisible and inconsequential to the society and the country of which we are citizens?
Yet our culture, our writing our art take pride of place in institutions around the UK. It is almost Pythonesque ...
And what have the Chinese ever given us in return?
Oh yeah, yeah they gave us that. Yeah. That's true.
And The Compass
Oh yes... the compass, Reg, you remember what navigating around used to be like.
All right, I'll grant you that Row -planting and the compass are two things that the Chinese have done...
And the seed drill...
(sharply) Well yes obviously the seed drill... the compass go without saying. But apart from the row-planting, the compass and the seed drill...
Iron Ploughs, Ships rudder
Harness for horses, Gunpowder, Porcelain, Toilet paper, Print - moveable type
Learning how to be Chinese.
I don't want to see you
I just want to be you
Five minutes that's all it takes
To empty you out
Hey, them's the breaks."
From my poem, Yellowface, from my collection "Reaching for my Gnu"
When we are represented, this is what we get.
Brilliant hilarious response from across the Pond: "Pucker up, RSC, cuz I am bending over."
Dr Broderick Chow on Two Dogs and a Maid.
Bland response from the RSC on The Orphan of Zhao but the thread is well worth reading.
Watch the La Jolla Playhouse debate on The Nightingale in the US.
STATEMENT from US playwright David Henry Hwang: ""The ORPHAN OF ZHAO casting controversy says less about Britain's Asian acting community, that it does about the RSC's laziness and lack of artistic integrity. Early in my career, when I wrote Asian characters, production teams in America often had to expend extra effort to find Asian actors to play them. Yet they did so, both to maintain artistic authenticity and to provide opportunities for actors who are virtually never allowed to even audition for 'white' roles. 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 only skin-deep."
Gregory Doran interview on Front Row. Plus RSC education course.
My article on the RSC The Orphan of Zhao casting now up at the Guardian website.
My review of The Orphan of Zhao in the Morning Star.
Review by academic Amanda Rogers.
British East Asian Actors release a statement.
Monday, 15 October 2012
Locally Sourced Productions Presents an evening with writer, comic and broadcaster Anna Chen reading from her "brilliant and dangerous" poetry collection REACHING FOR MY GNU on Monday 29th October.
With Charles Shaar Murray on guitar and reading from his acclaimed book on Jimi Hendrix, CROSSTOWN TRAFFIC. Plus music, short stories and latest material hot off the laptop.
"Charming, witty and sophisticated" Sunday Times
"Cutting edge" Stewart Lee
Brioche 238 West End Lane NW6 1LG
West Hampstead tube and rail
7.30pm, Monday 29th October
Sunday, 14 October 2012
As the rot sets in, here's a poem about the collapse of our institutions. A big rock has been lifted and look what's crawling out: Hillsborough, press hacking, Jimmy Savile at Broadmoor and the BBC, wars, widespread robbery of the poor to pay for the rich.
Capitalist production moves from the west to Asia and Africa, so the cultural and moral superstructures collapse into the economic base like a multi-tiered wedding cake left out in the rain, just the way Macarthur Park said it would. Or was it Karl Marx? He knew a thing or two, did Marx.
First one bit gives, then another
Appearing first as a small bruise on tender skin
A slight abrasion
Imperceptible in the first damp hours
A softening of flesh, dimples
You could fit a finger in,
A tip only, the print of a murderer's light touch
Expert from repeat performance.
First one bit, and then another
Falls and fails
While the peach keeps its integrity
For the longest time under an
Invisible sleight of hand,
Tightening its grip,
Silently stoppering breath and blood,
Draining the body's elixir.
So few clues, nothing slips beyond
The peach's own gravity,
Not even light.
A fresh furry package
Making good eating
For eyes that don't see
Hologram surfaces and planes
Like a stealth bomber bearing down
On the village.
The surface holds fast
A thin pink line
Between air and chaos underneath
Back to its elements
In furious molecular storms.
Assault squads pitch in
Pits and tips past the point where
Mesh unmeshes flesh, fibres unwind
Cells spill their watery content
Buttress tissues sprawl and give way
to spores that worm their work
Down to the centre
Down to the core
Decomposing genetic law
Fruit hide decays
Bruises that crawled and
Snuck up on their prey
Always somewhere other
Suddenly expand with sullen shock
and join the dots as continents collide.
There is no reorder from this,
Only the sweet smell of excess
And the long wait for the kernel
To give rise to more fruit.
The blossom was beautiful.
by Anna Chen
Saturday, 13 October 2012
Garbo speaks! A quick reminder that today you can hear me guest-hosting Zoe Baxter's Lucky Cat Show on Resonance FM 104.4 at 3.30pm. My guests are travel writer Navjot Singh, Hi Ching and Charles Shaar Murray, and I'll be reading some lively poetry from Reaching for my Gnu.
I know, I thought, it's late with at least 20 minutes before I drop off. Perfect to start reading that Ezra Pound collection that's been sitting there two years. Never mind what they say about his politics, I'll read him for the poetry and filter out the other stuff. Here's the first poem I read:
The GardenOh. Dear. I don't suppose he's being hugely ironic. Who's the woman, Ayn Rand?
Like a skein of loose silk blown against a wall
She walks by the railings of a path in Kensington Gardens,
And she is dying piece-meal of a sort of emotional anaemia.
And round about there is a rabble
Of the filthy, sturdy and unkillable infants of the very poor.
They shall inherit the earth.
In her is the end of breeding.
Her boredom is exquisite and excessive.
She would like some one to speak to her,
And is almost afraid I will commit that indiscretion.
Still, I shall persevere and hope it doesn't give me nightmares.
Friday, 12 October 2012
Tuesday, 9 October 2012
I was pleasantly surprised to find that the new Beatles musical, Let It Be, was pretty good in a superior tribute-band kind of way.
Above, my review in the Morning Star on why it did not suck.
Monday, 8 October 2012
I'm standing in for Zoe Baxter this weekend, reading from my poetry collection REACHING FOR MY GNU, accompanied by Charles Shaar Murray on guitar.
My guests will be travel writer Navjot Singh who lives and works in China and has witnessed some startling changes since his first visit in 2003. Plus Hi Ching, performer and artistic director who made one of the best screen villains I've ever seen: Li Si, the prime minister to Chin Shi Huang Di, China's First Emperor (he of the terracotta warriors). I'll be talking to Hi about his career and his plans.
So do please join me at 3.30pm this Saturday 13th October on Resonance FM 104.4.
Saturday, 6 October 2012
"Now then, now then. How's about that, then, guys and gals?"
What adds the extra dimension of horror to the revelations about Sir Jimmy Savile OBE's sexual predilections, quelle surprise, is the power involved. Not just that the BBC and police, as huge institutions, closed ranks around their star — they do that all the time. It's not just that his victims were opportunistically drawn from a pool of trusting star-struck youngsters. It's that so many were lost children: runaways, borstal boys, girls from "approved" schools, even kids from orphanages.
It's like the class war played out through sex.
Jimmy put the vile in Savile when he raped these children: the ones at the bottom of society who needed love the most. The paedophile parties that rewarded his showbiz cronies and their hangers-on were the nightmare underbelly of the 1960s dream. Where so many were going for sexual liberation, predators swam in the wake, picking off the stragglers who had little chance of gaining from the economic good times.
Their abuse shouldn't be used as a Trojan Horse to clamp down on sexual autonomy for adults or to attack the values of the sixties. With all this country's faults, universal healthcare and education, a robust housing programme and an improving distribution of the nation's wealth, made it one of the planet's best places in which to live.
While we're reeling with disgust at the abuse in the Savile case and its cover-up, Health Minister Jeremy Hunt's cynical headline-hungry calls for a 12-week limit on abortions while his government pauperise women through the savagery of their cuts, would inflate the numbers of the vulnerable working class who have fallen through the floor even further if enacted in law. Even more unwanted kids for a decadent ruling elite to dine on, whether as sexual fodder or free and low-paid labour in their businesses.
The spirit of Savile lives on in the callousness of our ruling elite. We're all Soylent Green now.
Friday, 5 October 2012
Hilarious, delightful and most cheering. After the free download day for my poetry book on Amazon to mark National Poetry Day, Reaching for my Gnu has hit number 3 in the Kindle free poetry list in Bestsellers out of THOUSANDS.
Look, pictorial proof that my baby did well.
Thank you to everyone who downloaded my book. I hope it's giving you as much pleasure as that ranking is giving me.
Thursday, 4 October 2012
If all goes well on the technical side of things, to mark National Poetry Day, I'm making my "brilliant and dangerous" poetry collection — Reaching for my Gnu — available as a free download from Amazon for 24 hours from around 8am (midnight Pacific Standard Time) today. Then it's back to £4.99, a bargain.
There are lots of poetry events happening including Inua Ellams conducting an online poetry workshop at 2pm for an hour. Tweet: @PoetryDayUK. Read Ian McMillan in the Guardian. National Poetry Day is on Facebook.
With political parties plumbing new depths and a betrayal of the mass of the population looking suspiciously like it's on the cards, here are two poems on politics from my book.
CREDIT CRUNCH SUICIDE
I could have been a banker
Sitting on a ledge
High up on a skyscraper
Coz someone clipped my hedge
I could have been in business
In the city making bids
Take a shotgun to the wife and dogs
And then I’d do the kids
But I’m just a daily worker
About to lose my home
Savings all depleted
Can’t even get a loan
The bankers got their billions
The doggy got a bone
The millions got the wankers
Whose hearts are made of stone
I can cry into me drink
I can curse the gods above
I'd like to give that banker
A bleedin' great big shove
Watch him splat upon the pavement
A human pizza pie
Coz that's where I'll be living
Until the day I die.
I never could understand
Men who top up their tan with elan,
Turn tangerine polished with Mr Sheen,
The shiny surface of kidney beans
Looking mean as mahogany would
If no longer home for orangutans,
Felled instead for rich men's dens,
Men blasted red under UV rays,
Glow in the dark, pulsate in the haze
Like zits preparing to pop,
Like rotten tomatoes straining to drop,
Their sporange burns orange, their blood turns to glop.
It would be a fair cop
if they weren't very tanned,
Leather hides hiding how bland they am,
Blancmange with a scab on the top.
Unhinged by the heat, derailed in the raw,
Carapace of lies the colour of gore.
No, that's not it.
The colour of shit when you've bitten an elderly prawn
Caught at the arse-end of a waste pipe at dawn.
'I like that hue.
'Not too, too ... ecru?'
It's 'tall, dark and handsome',
Not 'beige, bleached and winsome'.
Ditched his pallor for crimson
Flashed a smile that was toothsome
Exponentialised his income
Travelled the dark zone
Split schizoid twosome
Nicotinised flotsam and jetsam
Oh farce in the mirror,
Who wouldn't want some?
His outsides were wholesome
His secrets were gruesome.
What are you hiding apart from your skin
Is there some sort of sin going on you should bin?
How could you sweeten this little hand
Shove it in a blender with marzipan?
That red, that blood, it's not even yours,
Extracted from virgins to tighten your pores,
Tighten your wallet exploding with wad
And now you've found god.
Have you fallen deeply in love with your maker?
Bully for you, Orange Tone, you foul faker.
“Brilliant and dangerous ... one wild-ride roller-coaster that soars to altitudes of unfettered wit and then plunges with a startling and implacably knowing anger ... a perception that's as topical as tomorrow."
REACHING FOR MY GNU is available as a free download on National Poetry Day 4th October from 8am in the UK (from midnight Pacific Standard Time everywhere). You can read it on computers and devices with an eReader which you can download for free at Amazon.
Tuesday, 2 October 2012
I've managed to edit and post another batch of videos of me, Charles Shaar Murray and friends performing at the St Ives Arts Festival last month.
Thanks to Louise Whittle for videoing our last appearance at Norway Square for this festival. I'm reading poems from Reaching for my Gnu, joined by Charles and Buffalo Bill Smith for "Anna May Wong Must Die!".
Other performances posted include Charles reading his poem, "Dylan in '66" (apologies for my munching of crisps at the beginning — who knew these camera mics are as sensitive as the artists?), and a couple of blinders from Bob Devereux who hosts the Norway Square events and the Big Frug, as well as appearing as Lord Palmerston in The Steampunk Opium Wars in St Ives when John Crow couldn't make it.
Charles Shaar Murray: Dylan in '66.
Bob Devereux and Pip Barlow in Norway Square.
Bob Devereux and Martyn Barker at Madam Miaow's Culture Lounge.
Madam Miaow's Culture Lounge at the St Ives Arts Club on 18th September included:The Steampunk Opium Wars Part 1 and Part 2.
Duelling Harmonicas with Buffalo Bill Smith, Malcolm Hurst and Charles Shaar Murray.
Steve Jones performing Beeswing.
Steve Jones performing Wall of Death.
Monday, 1 October 2012
Profits at a record high, luxury goods going through their vaulted roofs because there is no recession at the top, and still Labour perpetuates the myths of the Tory austerity agenda. The Sunday Times Rich List top 1,000 may reveal a worth of £440bn and record profits during the crisis since 2009 but Shadow(y) Chancellor Ed Balls still insists that hard times are set to than people hoped — not for the upper crust, of course, just for the rest of us who are having to recapitalise the banks.
Watching the Labour Conference 2012 is like seeing Mafia hopefuls making their bones before the next stage of their careers. So Balls can pledge to be "ruthless" with our public services, and the Scottish Labour Party leader can promise an "end to the something for nothing culture", like they'll even touch the royals and their subsidised business chums.
If, for example, Dr John Reid can step out of his job as Labour Home Secretary and into a directorship of the dire G4S mopping up the privatised services Reid used to oversee; if the Blairs can cash in on the break-up of the NHS with their Mee Healthcare travesty, then why shouldn't the other chancers in the party pave the way to a golden career? Let's hope they choke on it.
Chuka Umunna declares, "Markets have been the greatest engines of innovation and prosperity the world has ever known." Really? He can say this after what the markets have done to the western economy in the past few years? As someone pointed out, plenty of innovations such as the internet have been pioneered in the state sector, not to mention the raw talent unleashed in Britain in the 1960s after education became universal, taxes for the rich were high and key industries were nationalised.
But still they fetishise business and suck up to the rich, facilitating their further looting of our ailing economy. They perversely ignore leading economists Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz who have given chapter and verse warning why austerity never works: the European solution to the euro crisis is 'wrong'.
There are a few voices but they are being drowned out. Owen Jones has a stab at explaining what the Labour Party is about, and trade union leaders run the gauntlet when they offer an alternative to the current onslaught.
Len McCluskey said today at the conference: ""A public spending squeeze while City continues to let rip is simply not acceptable" and pointed out that the last Labour government "put too much faith in an unregulated City and allowed inequality to worsen. ... Asking the poorest for further sacrifices for a crisis they did not cause is the road to political ruin & defeat at the next election."
Amen to that.
Meanwhile, Eric Hobsbawm has died and left us with the minnows. Sad for him, tragic for us.