Wednesday 17 October 2012

The Orphan of Zhao: RSC casts Asians as dogs and maid in Chinese classic

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.

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?
Row -planting
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
'“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.

Learning how to be Chinese.

"I'm Yellowface
I don't want to see you
I'm Yellowface
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.


Jha said...

"Yes, cross-racial casting is a wonderful idea— the problem is that it's all one-way traffic." -- YES. Statement applies to ALL creative fields trying to gank non-Western forms in the name of "cross-cultural exchange."

Hunting Violets (Resa Haile) said...

I really admire you, and I cannot believe this is still happening. I have no words.

Madam Miaow said...

Thank you, Resa. It's wonderful how so many of us are all pulling together on this.

Nicholas said...

I find it very hard to understand the outrage this has generated. Shakespeare is widely produced across Asia, in English as well as translated into various Asian languages, all without a white actor or even production member in sight. But no one ever complains. So how is this any different?

If our goal is equality, then it is discrimination only if it cuts both ways. I personally feel that demanding Asians be given major roles just because the play is Asian in origin is tokenism at best, or racism in reverse at worst.

So what am I missing? Did more qualified Asian actors audition but were overlooked?

Madam Miaow said...

Nicholas, East Asians are excluded from non-Asian roles, yet when Asian roles come up that we could play, we are excluded form them as well. I'm British and yet I'm excluded from participating in my own culture on the basis that I look East Asian.

I was told I was too Chinese to play Lady M or Juliet, yet caucasians can play Chinese princesses.

What's ours is ours and what's yours is ours is what we hear.

Let's have a level playing field where there's no discrimination. White is not the default mode for universal.