So excited about this – as I am one of the contributing playwrights
A Selection of Writing by British East Asian Artists
Ed. Jingan Young
This is the first ever collection of modern dramatic writing by British East
Asian writers, curated by the award-winning playwright Jingan Young.
With a foreword by David Henry Hwang.
So, Ed Skrein has entered the fray when it comes to the continued wanton whitewashing of roles, characters, history, and fiction regarding the inclusion or should it be the exclusion of East Asians, whether they be people of hyphenated or multiple combined heritages.
On my side of the pond, I recently read three excellent pieces by three great British East Asian artists.
First, actor and writer Vera Chok,
I went in for an interview at a giant news corporation. The make up artist, bless her, should she have been notified in advance? I don’t know. She did not have makeup to match my skin colour. I ended up on national TV a few shades paler than I am. I heard somewhere that privilege is walking into a store and finding a shade of foundation that suits your skin.
A white, working class person wrote to me about their relative being shot in the street in Ireland. We discussed Irishness and being stuck as working class. They felt that I was saying all white people are demons and I said, let’s break that down – what do we mean by “white”? Do we mean the Polish or Albanians, the Swiss or Italian? We categorise and rank people and groups of people. Who is feeding us stories and what can we do about it? Who are we prepared stand up for? Why did this white person come at me combatively with a #NotAllWhitePeople stance?
I am trying very hard not to talk using phrases which might make some people glaze over e.g. “power differential”. I am trying not to feel a bit ground down by being wheeled out as a presentable, ethnic minority representative. I don’t love it when certain disinterested interviewers read out their questions about racial stereotyping. Focus on the good people, the ones who understand that we are nowhere close to being on a level playing field. Focus on the folks who inspire me, who do their best to live the best way they can, which includes self-awareness and self-care. I’ve met such a lot of incredible people in the last day.
second, Matthew Xia director
Despite the humorous response I often get – “Count yourself lucky, who wants a thousand flyers to a thousand dreadful shows?” – I don’t count myself lucky. I want the right to be informed, to be included, or rather, not to be excluded – I want the right to refuse. This is a problem the festivals have to deal with. Due to their very nature, from a point of governance and policy this is an impossibility. Therefore the individuals who comprise the festival have to address this issue. If every person of colour who attends reports a similar experience – of isolation, invisibility, and exclusion – then, along with the galvanising and unifying work by artists of colour, it is up to everyone to invite us, to include us, to see us.
Xia hits the nail squarely on the head – I want the right to be informed, to be included, or rather, not be excluded – I want the right to refuse.
And last, but by no means least
Many of us have campaigned long and hard against movie industry “whitewashing.” We’ve recently seen a whole slew of bleached-out castings in films like Aloha (Emma Stone as a Eurasian Hawaiian), Dr. Strange (Tilda Swinton as a Celtic version of a Tibetan martial arts guru) and Ghost In The Shell (Scarlett Johannson as the Japanese manga character Major).
No actor of color is looking for “positive discrimination” or a leg up; we just want a level playing field. And if you take a character written as Asian or black and cast a white actor in that role, you’re effectively saying that there was no Asian or black actor good enough or clever enough or talented enough or capable enough to play that part.
Or that they simply did not exist. There’s a word for that: erasure.
And there is it is.
British East Asians (BEA) period, are not seen, not recognised, we are given no real, artistic quarter. We are invisible, we are forgotten, we are excluded from our own culture, erased from history, side barred in many, if not most of the conversations and debates when it comes to diversity and inclusivity in the arts. We remain still a minor footnote even within the overall British Minority Ethnic “umbrella.”
I and many others, far more qualified and erudite have written and spoken out about this on more than one occasion.
I’ll say it again, now.
BEAs are the only British minority that you can still be openly racist towards in the media. Whether it’s the comedian on day time or prime time TV regaling us with a “chinky joke.” Or an over-the hill, white, middle-class, male petrol-head TV host, engaging in racially derogatory terms. Only to be excused and protected by his superiors (also white, middle-class male and Oxbridge educated) as public-school humour, harmless, affectionate comedic banter. To the London fringe theatre, facilitating and enabling the continuance of that odious practice, of Yellowface. Then telling the many British East Asian artists (BEAA) who raised their concerns, that we should not be offended, as no offense was intended. Just because a play is set in ancient China doesn’t really mean anything, Giving characters, “East Asian” sounding names, does not denote that the character should be of East Asian heritage. Setting the play in ancient China was nothing more than a metaphor.
At that point, I lost the will to live in more ways than one.
My point is this, exchange the word China, the character names from Chinese to, African or South Asian (Indian, Pakistani or Bengali) would a similar situation have arisen? I am pretty confident that neither of these British minorities would have been told, to shut up. Such an equivalent blackface or brown-face production would never have gotten that far. Questions would have been raised in the house of Parliament, any other British minority, apart from East Asian, it just would not have happened – thank goodness.
What is it then, about being Chinese, being East Asian in the UK, being a citizen of Britain, with East Asian heritage,? That excludes us from full participation and consideration in our own the country? We grow up, we are educated, we graduate, we work and pay our taxes, we constitute 1.6% (according to 2001 UK census figures) of the UK population. Some statisticians, however, project that people of East Asian heritage will be the fastest growing British minority in the UK. Our numbers are predicted to overtake those of British Black, African, Caribbean and South Asians. Whether this proves to be the case or not the overall BAME percentage of the British population is expected to rise to 20% by 2051.
If that is the case, why do we BEAs, in the 21st century, still find ourselves being excluded, ignored and by and large “rejected” from participation in our own culture? It is still a rarity to see an East Asian in a leading role on a British made TV program or film. Not for a lack of projects that have, do employ East Asian themes.
Yet many of those in charge of commissioning, programming, casting, being the de facto arbiters of our modern culture, deciding what is good art or popular art, rarely engage substantively with East Asian artists, in front or behind the camera, on stage or backstage. Yet these very same professionals continually declaring that diversity is definitely something that is lacking, and that something needs to be done. Instead of nurturing and cherishing the existing, home-grown BEA talent, their preference is to look overseas. Because “true ethnic authenticity” can only be achieved by casting overseas East Asians. Commissioning overseas East Asian writers. More worryingly, it’s not just some of the predominantly white, male oriented UK production channels that are guilty of this behavioral bias, there are also a few BEA arts professionals sharing the same blinkered (and frankly racist) views.
Until these producers in their ivory towers start supporting the home-grown BEA talent very little is going to change. Until BEA writers (and there are many of us) start getting true breaks in Theatre, TV, and film, progressing from the endless round of unfunded R&D/scratch nights, having to pay for development weeks on supposedly BAME centred initiatives to “discover” talent in “underrepresented” communities in the UK nothing will really change. Where will the next tranche of new British writers, filmmakers, producers, and directors come from? Where will the next British equivalents of Hiroshi Kashiwagi Frank Chin David Henry Hwang‘ Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig where, how will these writers emerge?
As much as I love seeing these playwright’s work and in some cases actually having had the good fortune to perform in their plays in the UK, I’d like to see work that actually reflects our stories, our lives, tales that relate directly to our experiences and histories.
It really isn’t rocket science, it won’t happen no matter how many initiatives are instigated unless there is buy- in, substantive investment (time, resources and cold hard cash), real work opportunities and roll out from the top down.
As we all know diversity sells, it’s a financial success, it creates and grows audiences and puts bums on seats – or maybe that’s it, maybe “British” art and culture don’t want us East Asians sitting in theatre’s, cinemas and tuning into, mainstream, popular TV programs, because the default setting is white, western and European? And, us colonial types don’t figure in that UK cultural landscape? If that’s the case then chew on this . . .
Call The Midwife, a popular British TV series aired an episode earlier this year (episode 3) it included a storyline of a British-Chinese family, it netted 9.6 million viewers (it might have been more) and this is a “period” drama – just saying…
When acting jobs draw to and end it’s always sad.
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.
The nub of the problem is that we continue to have to deal with strata of arts arbiters, purse string holders, gatekeepers, commissioners etc who are majorly white, male and Oxbridge educated. Many have bought into, associate themselves with, subscribe to “diversity” but that is just not good enough. Diversity might be the gate which the arts sector has finally opened but inclusion is the key that will open the inner sanctum. And that key is still firmly in the grasp of those (many of whom) have no idea what it means to be a twenty-first-century British person. What identity and culture is for modern Britishers. We are fed a predominantly, mono-tonal cultural diet, especially on the small and large screen. Even on our stages colour continues to be divisive instead of inclusive. Until such time that ALL NPO, funded theatre companies start to embrace every aspect of diversity; which means substantive inclusion, engagement and active development then the drought and dearth of British writers and the diversity that they can bring to the stage will continue to elude us all. It will continue to feed into the lack of diversity on our stages when it comes to casting BAME actors in protagonistic roles. We will continue to see plays written by writers about subjects and themes that they are not personally or intimately connected to.
Now a writer can write about whatever he or she wants. But hearing the crafted words from an East Asian about the historical injustices suffered by say a Chinese serving in the British Chinese Labour Corps is not the same as a play penned by a well researched white writer – it just isn’t. It also allows for the continuation of cultural appropriation, using cultures merely as coat racks from which to hang a piece. Where foreignness and culture become a set dressing. It condones and enables (some) organisations to justify Yellowface and Yellow-voice. And it carves an even deeper path and precedent for only certain writers (usually not of colour) to be the only ones that can write historical costume dramas.