Saturday, 8 February 2014

The RSC Orphan of Zhao: one year on, East Asian British in the arts

BEAA founding members at Opening The Door, L to R: Michelle Lee, Lucy Sheen, Anna Chen, Jennifer Lim, Paul Hyu, Amanda Rogers, Kathryn Golding and Daniel York

February 11th marks the first anniversary of the groundbreaking Opening the Door event at the Young Vic. This was the first positive concrete step offered by a slice of the UK theatre establishment following the international protest led by East Asian British artists in response to the Royal Shakespeare Company's shocking yellowface casting for their first Chinese play, The Orphan of Zhao.

Despite the play being sold as the RSC's "Chinese Hamlet", and their marketing being directed at the Chinese — with promotion in Chinese and featuring an East Asian poster boy — the RSC cast only three minor parts out of 17 with east Asians even though this country has a fine pool of East Asian British (BEA) acting talent such as Benedict Wong, Gemma Chan, Lucy Sheen and Daniel York, among others.

One year on, Madam Miaow posts a guest blog by Daniel York. An actor with much to lose who stood up for principles of equality and fairness from the start, York challenged backward yellowface casting in the face of inertia and outright hostility as a founding member of the British East Asian Artists (BEAA), a group that sprung up to combat an antiquated and demeaning worldview we'd hoped was disappearing.

You can watch Daniel addressing the Open the Door event at the Young Vic in this video:

You can also watch the British East Asian Artists (BEAA)— who came together at the outbreak of Zhaogate hostilities to fight this significant battle — discussing the state of play with the Asian Performing Arts Forum in these videos: Part 1 and Part 2.

by DANIEL YORK February 2014

We are now one year on from the momentous and ground-breaking event that was the ACE/Equity sponsored Opening The Door Open Space session, where 200 theatre professionals (around half of East Asian descent) came together to reflect/debate/share/argue about the parlous state of affairs that have continually been the lot of East Asians in British theatre and to collectively seek solutions to the problems traditionally encountered.

The year since Opening The Door has certainly been very encouraging in terms of East Asian representation on our stages, though it would also be fair to say there is still some way to go before the East Asian talent that shone so brightly in the various mainstream and fringe productions that populated 2013 becomes more fully integrated into the UK theatrical mainstream and in a way that truly reflects and respects equally the diversity of that talent.

What has been most encouraging in this “break-out” East Asian year has been the sheer diversity of work in the last 12 months. Along with the three “China plays” (The Arrest Of Ai Wei Wei, Chimerica, and The World Of Extreme Happiness) we have seen Yellow Face; Golden Child;  Border Crossings' Consumed; The Storyteller-Curse Of Bakawali; Yellow Earth’s Limehouse project in development; Trikhon Theatre Company; The Steampunk Opium Wars; Lucy Sheen’s one-act double-bill; plus (if I may) my own The Fu Manchu Complex at Ovalhouse, generously supported by the Arts Council.

Indeed, what’s been particularly encouraging is the number of these East Asian initiated projects that have managed to garner Arts Council funding. We have had, for the first time ever perhaps, a true diversity of projects reflecting the fact that, whilst we may well be the smallest minority ethnic group in Britain, we are also the fastest-growing and most diverse. I do hope the Arts Council will continue to encourage that diversity instead of attempting to funnel us under one small and very particular umbrella. There are gate-keepers aplenty in our industry. Do we need more?

One year on from Opening The Door would seem to afford a good opportunity to reflect on how the event came about and who was responsible for it since there has appeared to be a touch of confusion about this lately.

Opening The Door resulted from a mass social media protest against the Royal Shakespeare Company’s controversial casting of the Chinese classic The Orphan Of Zhao. The protest was initiated and organised by members of what is now the British East Asian Artists group who showed tremendous courage and commitment by speaking out and engendering a vibrant and energetic campaign aimed at the world’s most powerful theatre company as well as the main public arts funding body in Britain. Many other individual British East Asian actors also contributed a great deal to the cause, again displaying immense bravery for those who work in a profession where intimidation via employment insecurity is rife.

Our cause was lent enormous support from around the globe, most notably from Tony award winning playwright David Henry Hwang (taking time out from a Broadway dress rehearsal to issue a powerful statement) , Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC), Erin Quill aka The Fairy Princess, Ma-Yi Theater, Pan-Asian Repertory and the tireless Victor Wong from the Chinese Canadian National Council whilst the RSC’s Facebook page was soon brim full with forthright comments from members of what was supposed to be the silent model minority. Closer to home, the movement was inspired by Anna Chen’s ferocious and witty writing on the subject whilst academics Amanda Rogers, Broderick Chow and actress Gabby Wong wrote and blogged insightfully as well. Apologies if I’ve missed anyone out, it was heady stuff. It’s all chronicled here on Anna Chen’s timeline of events.

It was disappointing then that, of the established British“Asian” theatre organisations, only Tamasha showed solidarity with our cause and in the wider BAME theatre sector only Talawa and Eclipse spoke up. Of the leading BAME theatre directors and writers very few had anything to say on the subject. Of course, it’s easy to get caught up in a treadmill of getting the latest grant form filled out and the latest production on but dare I suggest it might be well for those organisations to remember what brought them into being in the first place and to what they owe their continuing existence. Bold talk on websites of “raising profile” and “fighting discrimination and prejudice” surely needs to materialise in bold actions when they’re called for. We were an extremely powerful voice during the Orphan Of Zhao controversy. We would have been even more powerful with everyone on board. Of course, it’s everyone’s choice to not contribute but this should be for ideological, rather than other, possibly more self-protecting reasons, surely.

Nevertheless we prevailed, with the RSC to their credit eager to engage with ourselves, Equity and the Arts Council on an event that would at least attempt to address what is clearly an industry-wide on-going issue. SOLT/TMA (Society Of London Theatres) also came on board as did the Casting Directors Guild and the ITC with the Young Vic generously agreeing to host the event. Myself and fellow BEAA founding member Kathryn Golding as Equity East Asian members were part of the steering committee that planned and organised the day. We decided very early on to go for the Open Space format patented by the theatre company, Improbable. Open Space is a fluid and organic format that involves groups of artists and other interested and concerned parties working together to find common solutions, a powerful and enlightening experience. If you’ve never been to an Improbable Devoted and Disgruntled Open Space event then I advise you to ASAP. At the very least you’ll make new friends and contacts. I had actually, prior to all this, been in discussions with Improbable about an Open Space event on East Asian issues so the serendipity was most fortuitous.

I’m not sure there is any credit to be claimed for the mainstream East Asian inclusion in UK theatre since Opening The Door but going on previous experience it’s entirely possible there may have been one or two non-East Asians cast in East Asian roles and possibly a fair few Asian-American actors being flown in to play some others. I must stress that I welcome seeing our Asian-American brothers and sisters on our stages and I would like to see far more free exchange going in both directions but it should never again be the default position of our mainstream British theatre-makers and gate-keepers that there isn’t the talent and experience available in the UK. That simply isn’t true and the last year has surely proven that.

One last thing. I realize a lot of people are intimidated by protest action. I also realize that what may be regarded as “politics” bores and disengages others. But one thing that should absolutely be spelt out loud and clear is this: expecting the establishment to suddenly be considerate of you if you don’t at least try and engage with them is extremely naïve. The establishment is generally quite satisfied with the status quo because they are, after all, the establishment. No less than the Associate Artistic Director at the Young Vic told a group of us that change will only come about if we continue doing what we did during Zhao-gate i.e. speaking and engaging with mainstream gate-keepers as human beings.

And that is what we’re talking about here. Engagement.

BEAA founding members at Opening the Door, Young Vic, 11 Feb 2013, clockwise from bottom left: Hi Ching, Michelle Lee, Lucy Sheen, Chowee Leow, Amanda Rogers and Jennifer Lim.

For background information, read the chronology of The Orphan of Zhao controversy

BEAA open letter to Minister for Culture, Ed Vaizey.

Lucy Sheen on the RSC Orphan of Zhao campaign one year on.

Press pick up on the BEAA letter to Ed Vaizey.

BEAA Facebook and website.

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