I have just completed an exhilarating, exhausting (for me ‘coz I’m getting a little long in the tooth now), fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable week of Research and Development on Hsiung’s Lady Precious Stream. First performed at the Little Theatre in John Street, London, by the People’s National Theatre, directed by Nancy Price and Hsiung, and ran for 1000 nights between February 1935 and November 1936.
So, eighty years on a group of East Asian actors who are based in Britain headed on over to the English Touring Theatre’s rehearsal space for a week of exploration via text, movement (Tommy Franzen)and sound (DJ Walde).
Call me slow on the uptake but it wasn’t until we were half way through the process and after a brief discussion in the rehearsal room with David Yip and Daniel York which continued on social media, that it dawned on me . . .
So this is what it is like for friends, colleagues and acquaintances, who are white. They experience this feeling every single day of their lives. It is an involuntary social action and reaction for them. The equivalent of the body’s impetus to breathe. They walk into a room, a space, anywhere and they are accepted, (in a general sense) reflected and repeated. You are truly amongst a group of your peers. You are surrounded by those that are at once both familiar and dissimilar. There is an immediate connection.
When I walked into rehearsals rooms at the beginning of my career, I would invariable be the only one of my kind in that space. Not so much these days. But then these days I am seldom presented with the opportunity to walk into a rehearsal room, let alone find myself cast in a Theatre production. But that’s a post for another day. What I and the other seven East Asian actors, cast for the week of developmental exploration experienced, does not happen on a daily basis, or even at regular intervals, it is the exception, not the rule. Our white counterparts and colleagues have this experience on a daily basis, to the point, that it has surely become a subliminal and subconscious life reaffirmation. For those who are in the culturally dominant centile of our society, whether as gatekeepers, purse-string holders, Artistic Directors, Producers, Commissioning Editors or Casting Directors. From the rehearsal room to what they may consume as an audience, its presentation, its packaging (whether that be the actors and creatives that are employed) it all reflects the face and power of its maker. And that face, at the moment is predominantly white, Eurocentric, many are middle-class, majority male and Oxbridge educated.
I had never “analysed” how I felt or why, when working within a theatre company. Let me say now, I’ve never been treated badly, well only twice and that was very early on in my career. Again, another post for another day.
I’ve always loved and love working in theatre. In a company environment, in that creative crucible, there is nothing like it. But usually I was the only East Asian member within the company. If you were lucky, I might be one of a few BAME (Black Asian Minority Ethnic) members of a cast. However, I was always painfully aware of my own difference.
In the early days, if the discussions ever touched on East Asian themes, everyone would automatically turn and look at me. Of course, me being the font of all knowledge on matters East Asian – NOT! I have over the years acquired knowledge. I have taught myself much about East Asia and East Asian cultures and histories. But that’s because I wanted to, I personally needed to. Not because all people who look East Asian automatically know everything about their country, their continent past and present. Any more than every single person who has ginger hair and or green eyes is going to know everything there is to know about ancient Gaelic history. Not everyone who has ginger or green eyes is of Irish heritage. Even if they were, would they automatically know everything there is to know about ancient Irish history? Does every English person know in intimate and minute detail medieval English history? I grew up in Conservative South-east England, my immediate knowledge is of church spires, cricket and cucumber sandwiches, not Imperial China, Feudal Japan or Ancient Korea.
However, apparently my face, for many says otherwise. People who are not of colour never have to contend with this expectation. People who are not of colour are never (normally) subjected to representations of themselves that are only two-dimensional, racist, demeaning and or dehumanising in nature.
So to have had this recent opportunity working with other East Asian actors on a text written by an East Asian is a true gift. One which I shall treasure. My wish is that we get to the point where no East Asian Artists feels their difference in the way that my generation have and often times today still do. That we get to a stage in British culture where casting a BAME actor, or an actor with a disability, is not questioned for “what political, social or cultural, point is the production making. But that we both as practitioners and audience members can just sit down and enjoy the show.
I have my fingers crossed that Lady Precious Stream will be revived for a modern British audience.