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But it’s part and parcel of the peripatetic life of a freelancer. You make new friends and now with social media, you can keep in contact (although it’s not the same, but better than losing touch). Recently and more to the point unusually for me; I have been incredibly lucky in the recent work I’ve been given the opportunity to do. Neal Street Productions, Royal Shakespeare Company, BBC, Big Finish Productions, Theatre503, HerStory Festival, Women and War Festival and Untold Arts #TheScarTest at Soho Theatre. But even in the 21st century, such productions as #SnowInMidsummer (RSC) and #TheScarTest are rare. Rare because of the content/subject matter and casting. #Snow an all East Asian eleven strong cast, #Scar an all female, all women of colour cast – hired to act, not just because of the colour of their skin, but their ability to perform multiple roles.
I’d like to think that we come a long way since the 80’s when I played Portia (amongst other roles) at The Bristol Old Vic in the studio.
Directed by the late great Roger Rees. One broad sheet critic headed their review
Let Me Have Men About me that are Black.
His contention was that no matter how well the diverse poly ethnic company spoke the verse and he conceded we spoke it perfectly. It just wasn’t Shakespeare, because we were not white. I repeat I’d like to think we have come a long way since then. I can dream can’t I? But then I think it’s been thirty years since that groundbreaking production. And we have yet to see another British East Asian actress in a major Shakespearian role on a main-stage in the UK. Incredible isn’t it.
Whilst our colleagues of South Asian and Black, African and Caribbean heritage have made headway – British East Asians remain stuck in a time vortex which is more reminiscent of the Victorian world view when it comes to people from the Far-east than the actuality of the 21st century. But is this then a true reflection of how the western, Eurocentric Caucasian Oxbridge educated male arts dominated world view us?
Diversity is the watchword and those in the industry sitting in their ivory towers, holding the purse strings tight, dictating what is “good art” and what subjects are worthy of being produced and who can or cannot be cast in leading protagonistic roles. But inclusivity the actual driver, the engine if you like to achieve diversity top to bottom, in front of and behind the camera that is missing. We can have all the protestations from the production companies that they see diversity as something that is lacking. That they need to do more. But if the will to drive this to fruition is not there. If the very people tasked with implementing this have no connection to diversity what then? And it isn’t just the media (TV, Film) that is guilty of paying lip service only it is in our theatres. On our main stages, not just regional subsidises theatres (the few that are left) but our major NPOs (National portfolio Organisations) i.e. the ones that receive ongoing funding from The Arts Council Of England, some not all are still lagging far behind in the diversity. In casting of actors, back stage, administration wise etc.
When are we going to see more diversity and inclusion in British culture?
And please don’t tell me it takes time for these things to occur. It’s been thirty years since I first entered in to the fray and heard the “debate” about accurate and appropriate representations of people of colour. How much more time is needed? Quite frankly that “excuse” has passed its sell by date and gone over the “best before” date.
All I want, all any actor wants (irrespective colour, gender or physical ability) is a fair shake. An opportunity to work in the field that I trained to work in. I think I’m ok at this type of work. All anyone wants is to be able to make the bills at the end of the month, to earn enough to cover their travel and food costs and maybe have just a little at the end of the month to have a few nights out – go see a film, catch a theatre show have a drink or meal with a few friends once in a while. As an actor of colour I’d love not to be worrying
about the when the next casting will come along let alone the next job. At the moment many acting jobs appear to be driven not by the talent, but by who your agent is and whether the production company and or casting director actually knows and likes the agent you’re with. You’re being dictated to before you even get a chance to walk through a door to a casting. You add the latter to the existing narrow view when casting people of colour in non-specified roles, add that to the ongoing view of what an East Asian should be, the limited expectations of what an East Asian should be like through the culturally dominant lens of the UK and castings are not piling up for actors like me. Add to that the inbuilt agism when it comes to female actors and that’s yet another barrier. Whatever happened to “playing age” especially in theatre?
I’m not famous, people don’t know who I am or what I’ve been in. That’s fine, I don’t mind that at all. But industry people? You would be forgiven for assuming that those who work in the business of finding or suggesting actors for roles, that such professionals would be in the know. It’s not like I’m fresh out of drama school. I have to confess I have now been around for a while and I do have a fairly credible CV. But recently I have been quizzed by several industry folks in the casting sector, asking me why they have never heard of me, or never come across me.
I don’t know, how does one answer that one? At the beginning of this year I appeared in Call The Midwife S6 Ep3 an episode that apparently attracted 31.4 per cent of the viewing audience and 500,000 more viewers than the previous week’s episode. So over or around 9.22 million viewers. Making Call The Midwife the most watched program for that day.
As an actor of colour or a very particular and unrepresented colour roles of this type, calibre, researched well and crafted with love and care are the exception not the rule.
And on that note I will draw to a rather (for me) depressing note. As I enter the final few performances of The Scar Test and extraordinary play written by the über talented Hannah Khalil, directed superbly by Sara Joyce and performed by an equally extraordinary cast Nadia Nadif, Shazia Nicholls, Janet Etuck and Rebecca Omogbehin I cannot help wonder whether we will ever get the chance to work together again because this grouping of actress spanning continents, faiths and cultures is so rare to be seen on stage yet it is an actuality in British life in spite of what the Daily Mail and other right-wing fear and hatred mongering media would have you think. Britain is not as segregated and fearful as some would want us to believe.
Yet our art, our culture has not even come close to reflecting the exuberance, the complexity, the joy and diversity that really is modern-day Britain and we are all the poorer for it.
Is it Yellowface? Is it artistic racism and subjugation when using a setting such as ancient China, that doesn’t really mean anything? Or is this practice symptomatic of something much darker and more worrying?
In The Depths of Dead Love according to the copy of from The Print Room is a
Set in ancient China, In the Depths of Dead Love tells of a poet exiled from the Imperial Court & the favour of the Emperor, who scrapes a living by renting his peculiar property – a bottomless well – to aspiring suicides. Among these is a married couple who exert an appalling influence over him. Told through Barker’s celebrated exquisite language and affecting humour In the Depths of Dead Love is the witty and poignant tale of a man facing an impossible dilemma.
I suspect that The Print Room is wishing that it could disappear into the depths and not emerge until the controversy that their Yellowface production of In The Depths of Dead Love is causing.
This is not going to go away.
Thursday, 15 December Daniel York posts on social media
Yellowface. Alive and not well in Nottinghill. You know what to do @the_printroom. And their Facebook page https://www.Facebook.com/theprintroom
For four days people took to social media to express their concerns, their anger, their bewilderment, that a play written by one of Britain’s most renowned playwrights, was going to be done using Yellowface.
How could a theatre in 2016, take such a retrograde, seemingly un-wonton and deliberate act of racism? After all that has been going on? After all the debates, the public “arguments” and pleas for more diversity in British culture; on small and big screens and on our theatre stages.
How could any professional theatre think, that setting a play in ancient China about indigenous people, then casting the piece using only white actors, was not going cause huge offence?
As Howard Sherman said of, the first Print Room statement it, was meaningless. By way of an apology this is what the Print Room initially offered:
some publicity material seem to have permitted the possibility of a misapprehension arising.
Misapprehension? I’d say out-and-out anger. The play is publicised, as set in ancient China. What exactly do you think people are going to take from that? There are no lines to read between. It is not vague, it is specific.
we could just as easily be in the metaphorical area of Hans Christen Anderson, or alternatively, the land of the Brothers Grimm.
But the play isn’t set in an alternative metaphorical land it’s been set in ancient China. If you wanted a “universal” outlook and you need to keep the play set in China, then why not, as one tweet suggested, cast diversely, using Black, Asian and White actors?
As many writers, tweeters, social media posters, and articles pointed out repeatedly, would such a play have been written using ancient Africa or India? Giving the characters African or Indian sounding names, such as Chimachana or Abahaba and then cast using only white actors?
The answer is a resounding NO.
So, if a playwright and a theatre, would not countenance doing the same with a play set in ancient Africa or India, (you see where I’m heading with this) what is it that makes everyone think, that this retrograde, deeply offensive and insulting practice is acceptable with China and the Chinese?
Whilst I acknowledge that the treatment of Black and Asian-British artists still leaves much to be desired, at least those British minorities have reached a point, where such crass, unthinking actions would not in general occur. At least when you say Black-British or British-Asian most people won’t bat an eyelid.
To make matters worse, The Print Room then issued a second statement on Wednesday 21st December, just in time for Christmas.
If I thought that the first statement was bad, then second did not disappoint. It went further, digging themselves deeper with insults, insinuations, heavily steeped in racial and cultural bias, topped off with a sprinkling of whitesplaining, flavoured heavily with white privilege, which dribbled over the side with white fragility.
When it comes to the wider British society and our cultural views towards British East Asians, we fair very differently to our colleagues of Black and Asian heritage.
This is not a discrimination p**sing contest to see who is more sinned upon than sinning. I am painfully aware that discrimination, prejudice, and racism is still, regrettably alive and directed towards anyone who is “different”. Whether that difference is physical, religious, sexual orientation, gender identification or racial or ethnic heritage.
People are still being subjected to discrimination above and below the line.
I suspect, that what I’m going on to explore, is going to be uncomfortable reading for some. There is a fundamental difference in the treatment of British East Asians as a minority in the UK. If one was to compare the way British society and culture perceives and portrays other British minorities, the treatment of British East Asians is definitely not the same. We are a true minority within the minorities.
That difference has always been there.
In the industry that I work in, (at least to me and my fellow East Asian artists) the inequality is blatantly obvious.
Want to learn more? I highly recommend this article written by Daniel York for Media Diversified, The Racial Pecking Order in British Theatre and TV.
Post-Brexit, yes I’ve said it.
Most “normal” people would refrain from publicly aligning themselves with the right-wing racist unless of course your Katie Hopkins or Nigel Farage. Many people may secretly share or be sympathetic to such views. But the majority will not publicly admit this. Most, would not go around using the N-word or P-word. But when it comes to East Asians, using the word Ch**k is perfectly ok.
I’ve been told, on numerous occasions, that it is a humorous compliment. It’s a bit of Mickey taking done with love. That using the word, Ch**nk, is no way as offensive as the N or P word.
A sharp intake of breath.
According to whom? Nigel Farage?
Well, excuse me, if I, as a British East Asian, disagree.
I can categorically assure you, it is every bit as insulting, demeaning and racist. Ask Sydney Chan.
The Print Room’s second statement only made matters worse. Click here to read it in full
no offence was meant, so none should be taken.
The Print Room may think that because they have explained the Chinese setting and Chinese names are not meant to be real. That the casting of the roles using white actors is totally justified and therefore acceptable.
Heck, it would not surprise me if the thought is, this piece is somehow paying homage to China and the Chinese.
The thing is, it stops being an homage, immediately you start trying to “play” someone else’s race. Irrespective of whether you use makeup and facial realignment or not.
It is this is this difference in attitudes, this indifference (at best) towards British East Asians, that sets us apart from other British citizens. If you like society places a chalk cross on our shoulders, the ramifications of which can be fatal.
Take the murder of Mi Gao Huang Chen, in 2003.
This was initially described by Detective Chief Inspector Steve Crimmins as youth nuisance and anti-social behaviour How can one call the brutal and savage beating to death of Mi Gao, by a gang of fifteen white youths, as anti-social behaviour?
In fact, it has been argued that it was the police’s initial reaction, or inaction, rooted in ingrained racial bias towards East Asians, which should take an equal portion of the blame, for the murder of Mi Gao. In as much as the gang of youths who actually perpetrated the crime.
Had the police acted earlier, had they not brushed aside the first report of “trouble” on that fatal night as high-spirited youths, being anti-social, perhaps Gao might still be alive today, we will never know. After all, this was in 2003, not 1993.
What I’m trying to say in a rather ham-fisted way, is that this ingrained negative bias towards British East Asians affects and ultimately continues to shape British society and how it reacts and interacts with its own British East Asian citizens. The effects of which ensure that we, as a section of British society, remain isolated, and segregated. Seen as the outsiders, fair game, for the butt, of many a cheap racist joke. And sadly in the case of Mi Gao, the ultimate conclusion, to such racist dehumanisation, the loss of life.
If you want to learn more about Mi Gao then click here.
These cultural and racial biases directed at East Asians run deep through British culture. So it is vital in the 21st century, that the representation and portrayal of East Asians in British media and on UK stages are, at least “accurate”.
That they are free from stereotypes, caricatures, and racial tropes.
What The Print Room is doing, whether intentional or not, is enabling the persistence of deep-rooted and traditional structural and institutionalised racism towards East Asians. Re-enforcing old Victorian attitudes, racism and prejudices towards East Asians, that we are of no value.
We are invisible. We are of no consequence other than as a useful backdrop to an English drama. Our role is not even a subsidiary one, but one of subservience. That we are not capable of taking on the mantle of a protagonist role. We cannot be heroes or lovers. We are the eternal one line waiters, illegal-immigrants, mail-order brides, prostitutes, emasculated and desexualised males, or fragile lotus blossoms. But always the ultimate cipher for exoticism, artistic “otherness” personified.
I am even more insulted by The Print Room’s second statement, than their first. ‘No offence was meant, so none should be taken.’
I am sure that no offence was meant. But offence you have caused and offence has been taken.
This is Colonialism for the 21st century, artistic Colonialism.
The policy or practice of acquiring full or partial artistic control over another country’s culture, by appropriation and occupation of said culture. Substituting and inserting participants of their own image, into that culture’s representations thus exploiting countries artistically.
This has to stop and stop now. If we are ever to reach the stage where it truly does not matter who does what on a UK stage or a British TV drama.
But until Britain address this imbalance of how it treats its British East Asian citizens then such nonsensical productions, will continue. They will continue to be excused citing artistic freedom or waving the spectre of censorship and at the same time saying that one Black performer in x=diversity.
Until I see the East Asian male Oxbridge educated lover, or the Mancunian, East Asian single mum and the Yorkshire East Asian OAP as head characters on TV and UK theatre stages, we are going nowhere fast.
The words coming from those who are the gatekeepers and the arbiters of British culture, proclaiming that they are committed to diversity, it’s just that, words.
Words are cheap, actions require real commitment, real investment, and real work.
Diversity, equality, and inclusion are not so if it only acknowledges some and not ALL. Why should the British East Asian have to watch everyone else seemingly receive such considerations? So let’s start working – for ALL.
If you feel strongly about this issue then please join the protest in the New Year click here for full details
related articles about #Yellowface production scheduled, January 2017
A new stage work about adoption that spans China and the Uk and it all takes place in one of the many Chinese courts of hell!
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