Scenes From A Yellowface ExecutionFirst published at www.theplaysthethinguk.com 18th December 2016
By Daniel York
Before we go any further, let me lay a couple of things out there:
1) Howard Barker is a first-rate dramatist.
2) The Print Room in Notting Hill is a great small-scale theatre.
But they have epically and catastrophically screwed up their casting choices in Barker’s latest offering, In The Depths Of Dead Love. According to the theatre’s website, the play is set in “Ancient China”, concerns an “Emperor” and “Imperial Court” and features characters called “Chin” and “Mrs. Hu”, with an entirely white cast who (without wishing to sound too ironically stereotypical) one would normally expect to see on TV taking tea with Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey.
It’s also doubly ironic that in post-referendum, post-truth Brexit Britain, we’ve spent the last few months being told that you simply cannot call people stupid or racist.
Well, here’s the deal. We don’t actually have to be stupid to do stupid things and we’re all perfectly capable of perpetuating systemic racism without actually being consciously racist. Yes, it’s a subtle one, folks, and interestingly, I can honestly say, hand on heart, I have never once heard the immortal words “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” said by any person of colour. Not one. Because people of colour are ten times as aware of racism as white people. It’s just a fact.
Now, what that hotbed of London fringe theatre that is the Print Room have done, in a play by one of Britain’s most eminent playwrights, is perpetuate the practice of “yellowface,” i.e. when a person who is not of East Asian descent plays a character of East Asian descent. Yellowface, like blackface and brownface, is a remnant of a time when actors of colour were simply not allowed on our stages.
There’s often confusion about a couple of things here. People like to kid themselves that blackface only ever happened in some bygone Edwardian hinterland and only then because there were no black actors around to play Othello. However, this isn’t actually true. The last blacked up Moor of Venice on our stages was as recently as 1990. The practice was only ended by protest from black actors.
Yellowface has lingered on a lot longer, unfortunately. We did however think we’d finally laid the culturally appropriated beast to rest (on British stages at least) in 2012 when, after the Royal Shakespeare Company elected to cast only three (out of a cast of 17) East Asian actors in minor roles (including a dog and a maid) in the Chinese classic, The Orphan Of Zhao, a mass social media protest that went viral globally caused considerable embarrassment to both the RSC and the British theatre industry as a whole.
Since then we have seen a whole slew of productions in major theatres: Chimerica, #AiWeiWei, The World Of Extreme Happiness, Yellowface, You For Me For You, P’yongyang, Shangrila, The Sugar-Coated Bullets Of The Bourgeoisie, all in major venues, achieving enormous success with casts of real-life East Asian actors, rather than Caucasians doing an “ethnic turn”. We will also shortly see Snow In Midsummer, at the RSC no less, and Chinglish at the Park Theatre. These are cast with actors who can actually trace their roots to Eastern Asia.
The other confusion that lingers about yellow (and black and brown) face is that if you don’t have the make-up on, the taped eyelids and the dodgy Mickey Rooney in Breakfast At Tiffany’s accent, this somehow ceases to be dodgy theatre practice and magically becomes instead a perfectly valid form of “colour-blind casting”.
But this is the deal. If you take an East Asian character and cast it with a white actor, you’re effectively saying there is no East Asian actor who was good enough/clever enough/talented enough/capable enough to play it.
Or they simply did not exist.
In other words: erasure.
* * * * *
POSTSCRIPT: Daniel York — 15th January 2017
I actually sat down and read In The Depths of Dead Love last night.
If anything I’m even more angry now.
The argument put forth by the Print Room is that, although the play is set in Ancient China and the characters have Chinese names, the characters are not “Chinese” and it’s a very “English story”.
Is this true? Well, there’s a lot of “deep bows” and talk of Emperors but reading the work leaves me wondering just exactly how “ethno-specific” a play would have to get before the people who nurtured, programmed and presented this one would consider that, yes, we might just have to cast some actors who aren’t actually Caucasian and middle-class.
The thing that really does disgust me, though, is the Print Room’s argument that they should have the right to cast “the best actors for the roles, independent of ethnic origin”.
Leaving aside that being “independent of ethnic origin” appears to be a privilege that only applies to white people, we have the Print Room citing Christopher Hurrell’s piece in defence that “the characteristics (Barker’s play) seeks in actors are not social, cultural or ethnic—they’re technical, aesthetic and artistic”
Let’s just pause there. Would it have to be written in pidgin English before the demands were relegated to “social, cultural or ethnic”?
And this is what is utterly despicable about the whole argument, had so many times in the past and, I hope, not too many in the future: the sheer racial and social snobbery embodied by organisations like the Print Room and the Wrestling School when they assert that they cast “the best actors for the role”. What they’re actually saying is “you little ethnics just aren’t up to the job”.
This would be bad enough but we’re now all pretty much certain that they never met or considered any actors of any other ethnic background other than white Caucasian for this play. This play which was produced on the radio in 2013. Which Christopher Hurrell maintains was given a reading at the Print Room in 2013. They’ve had FOUR YEARS to develop this. FOUR YEARS in which it does look as if they never once even considered casting actors who weren’t white Caucasian entirely because, I presume, they never once considered that actors who weren’t white Caucasian were up to the “technical, aesthetic and artistic” demands of the play.
The racial and social snobbery is compounded by the Print Room alleging that the protests have come from “some members of the public” when in fact it’s mainly members of the theatre community. When they argue that the references to China are merely “oblique”. When they give trite lectures about The Great Man being a “fabulist” whose work “is poetic and often difficult to pin down in time or place”.
Yes, we do understand all those things. Because we’ve actually read a few books too. We understand the arguments perfectly because, believe it or not, we’re “artists” as well.
And, as artists, we politely but firmly reject this cultural ethnic elitist high-handedness.
Daniel York (sometimes known as Daniel York Loh) is a mixed-race British East Asian actor, writer, filmmaker and musician. As an actor he has appeared at the RSC, National Theatre and Royal Court, as well as in the feature films The Beach and Rogue Trader. His short films have been seen in major film festivals where they have been nominated for awards. His first full-length play, The Fu Manchu Complex, ran at Ovalhouse in 2013. Along with composer Craig Adams, he won the 2016 Perfect Pitch award to create an original stage musical, Sinking Water, based on events around the 2004 Morecambe Bay Chinese cockle-picker tragedy, which is currently being developed under commission by Theatre Royal Stratford East. He is one of 21 writers of colour featured in the collection of essays, The Good Immigrant, which won the 2016 Books Are My Bag Reader’s Choice award. He is one-third of the alt-folk trio Wondermare whose self-titled debut album is available to buy on itunes. He has served on the Equity Minority Ethnic Members Committee, is a founder member of British East Asian Artists and has worked with Act For Change to promote diversity in UK media.
Tonight's protest against the use of yellowface casting in Howard Barker's play, In the Depths of Dead Love, takes place at the Print Room, 5pm onwards.
READ MORE AT THESE LINKS:
For a one-stop archive of events click on PRINT ROOM IN THE DEPTHS OF DEAD LOVE PROTEST CHRONOLOGY
PRINT ROOM STOP YELLOWFACE CAMPAIGN INTRO
Lucy Sheen: The 2017 play that shows Yellowface lives on
Daniel York: Scenes From a Yellowface Execution
Playwright Jingan Young, South China Morning Post: London storm turns spotlight on ‘whitewashing’ in film and theatre
Dr Amanda Rogers: Yellowface alive and well at the Print Room
Actor Erin Quill 16.01.17: In the Depths of British Theatrical Racism @the_printroom
Actor David Lee Jones, Nee Hao magazine 19.12.16: Why is it not acceptable to cast white actors to play Chinese characters on stage or on screen?
Actor Vera Chok 14.01.16: More thoughts on the Print Room
Brian Law on Facebook 18.01.17: So I went to see the play tonight ...
Howard Sherman, The Stage: Yellowface is wrong and the Print Room's explanation is meaningless
Lyn Gardner, the Guardian: Theatre is coming to terms with its diversity problem. Real progress is vital
Wealth brings power, the power to open a theatre in London's Notting Hill, the power to define human beings as worthy or not of inclusion, of defining whether or not we are English. Rich white women in need of a hobby get to do that to us because they are married to hedge fund bankers whose nationality, like capital, knows no frontiers. These are our rulers in our post-truth new world.
Facebook: Protest Against Yellowface Casting at the Print Room
Director Andrew Keates: letter to the Print Room's artistic director
Andrzej Lukowski, Time Out: There's going to be an anti-racism protest tomorrow over a fringe play in Notting Hill
The Stage 20.12.16: Equity adds voice to condemnation of Print Room ‘yellowface’ casting ... Equity general secretary Christine Payne also criticised the theatre's response of accusations against it, adding: "The Print Room’s statement is completely unacceptable on a number of levels, not least of which is the suggestion that an 'English' play must be completely white.”
What's On Stage 21.12.16: The Print Room apologises for 'any offence caused' in yellowface dispute (but only makes it worse)
The Stage 13.01.17: Print Room "artistic" director describes our protestations as a "social media attack" proving Mrs Hedge Fund couldn't give a flying one.
Grumpy Gay Critic 04.01.17: Yellowface and ‘In The Depths of Dead Love’. What Next? An Action Plan For Diverse Theatre Casting. The Print Room’s casting for In the Depths of Dead Love is a disgrace, and we’re certainly angry. But how can we move towards genuine change?
Evening Standard 19.01.17: Notting Hill theatre faces 'yellowface' protest for casting white actors in Chinese roles