Diversity still isn’t happening on U.K. stages, TV and film

Ed SkreinSo, 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.

Vera-Chok-393x253 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.

Matthew-Xia 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

Daniel-York-1024x683-1024x683 Daniel York.

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.

Between East and West

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 S6, Ep3
Alice Connor (Lucy) Lucy Sheen Oilen Chen

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…





Zut alors!

I’m back again scratching my head.

Yesterday it was Aunty, the “affectionate” term used by many when referring to the British Broadcasting Company or the BBC and their “major plans on diversity.” For more read BEA FAQ for The BBC, casting directors and general media

Today it’s Théâtre du Châtelet and their rival of Rogers and Hammerstein’s The King & I.  For more on that please read the most excellent fairyprincessdiaries’ latest blog post.

Yes that's The King of Siam
Yes that’s The King of Siam

Here’s the thing. The King & I is set in Siam. It’s about The King of Siam.  Simple isn’t it. But according to the latest revival little things like historical accuracy i.e. The King of Siam being from Siam or as we now know the country Thailand, this is role that is quiet obviously for an East Asian actor, no?  Mais non, aussi incroyable que cela puisse paraître, ce fait est sans conséquence à tous. Par Anglais: But no, incredible as it may seem, this fact is of no consequence at all.  It appears , that when it came to the casting of this revival UK director Lee Blakely saw nothing inappropriate, nothing “wrong” in casting French actor Lambert Wilson as The King and Lisa Milne as Lady Thiang. Monsieur Wilson according to his IMBd profile he was born in Neuilly-sur-Seine, Hauts-de-Seine, France.  He is French his father, Georges Wilson, was an actor, theatrical manager and director of the Theatre National de Paris, now known as Théâtre du Châtelet from 1963 to 1972 – coincidence, peut-être? As far as I can ascertain Monsieur Wilson has not cultural, ethnic or heritage ties or personal associations with East Asia. Not that the latter should matter. What matter is that as good an actor Monsieur Wilson is, what in god’s name is he doing being cast as The King, in The King & I? And the same goes for Opera singer Lisa Milne.

Colour blind casting

Now some would say this is one for those that advocate colour blind casting. Choose the best actors for the roles. Yes it would if it were globally a two way street and traffic was going both sides of the track up and down, not just in one direction. But it isn’t is it. You get a BAME actor or actress playing a part that’s more obviously written or traditionally play by an Caucasian actor then usually all hell breaks loose. This tend to happen  more frequently in movies, the platform and media maybe different,  but the issues are the same. Suddenly the casting a BAME actor affects the integrity of the work. Those that haven chosen to cast in this manner wake up to headlines such as:

The Incoherent Backlashes to Black

Actors Playing ‘White’ Superheroes


In terms of a BAME  (Black, Asian Minority Ethnic) actor in the UK being cast in what is considered traditionally white theatrical roles, recently I can only think of one. A Black actress cast in the part of Bobby in The Railway Children. I am sure there must be others. But for the life of me I cannot think of any at the time of writing this blog post. The actress playing Bobby got a mixed reception. Some went with it, for others it ‘spoilt’ the show. They complained of having to try and explain things to their disappointed children. I couldn’t help thinking at the time, was it the children that were disappointed or the adults?  Was it about the fact that the role had been played by a Black actress , most of whom admitted she did a fine job, or that audience members’ own prejudices and preconceptions prevented them from sitting in a theatre, suspending disbelief and just enjoying the show? After all in the theatre, is that not the contract that the audience and theatre enter into? For a brief time all things are possible. If you want realism watch the news, watch a conventional documentary. Theatre is all about the imagination. The audiences’ and the actors’ combined imaginations, or at least it used to be.

Thing is, I don’t see too many BAME actors being cast in white roles.  The RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) claimed that it was breaking the mould back in 2000 when they cast David Oyelowo as Henry VI, at the same time Adrian Lester was about to tread the boards as Hamlet in Brooks production at the Bouffes du Nord in Paris, December 2000. Both actors received, as far as I recall, great critical acclaim for their portrayals.
But it’s not an everyday occurrence. A BAME actor, (more often than not a Black-Caribbean or South Asian actor in the UK) playing a classical lead, is the exception not the rule. It is happening more. But considering 2000 was the first time that the Royal Shakespeare Company actually cast a Black actor as a King, it is pretty shabby going.

Back to the matter in hand, Théâtre du Châtele’s revival of The King & I.

Yul Byner & Deborah Kerr 1956
Yul Brynner & Deborah Kerr 1956
The-King-and-I.-Festival-EdinburghPhoto-Credit-Catherine-Ashmore-1-e1348762946446-630x310 copy
UK 2012 Josefina Gabrielle (Anna) and Ramon Tikaram (The King) in The King and I. Photo: Catherine Ashmore
kingandi_wst-dl copy
December 11th, 2013 Vancouver,Gateway Jovanni Sy, who plays the king of Siam, and an inspired rendering of the English schoolteacher Anna by the smartly-cast Barbara Tomasic
Brisbane 2014 Lisa McCune and international opera sensation Teddy Tahu Rhodes as the King of Siam.
Brisbane 2014
Lisa McCune and international opera sensation Teddy Tahu Rhodes as the King of Siam.

My point being, yes BAME actors do sometimes get cast in “white” roles. But not as often as their Caucasian counterparts get cast in BAME roles. Caucasian actors can go seamless from playing anything and practically everything without raising an eyebrow in many quarters. It’s  appears to be ok for a work to be re-ethnicised, to be culturally re-structured to accommodate the casting of a Caucasian actor or actress. But you trying doing that, the other way around. Questions are asked, fingers pointed, barbed comments quite often bandied about freely on social media.

My ears are still ringing to the furore that Talawa’s  all black Importance of  Being Earnest elicited back in 1992. It literally split the professional theatrical and artistic community in two, those for and those against.
Whilst on the one hand a revival of The King & I can be staged in a manner that strips out the very heart of the piece, the political and the cultural concerns, by casting the King and Lady Thiang with Caucasian actors.
A company that in the UK looks at doing Chekhov’s  Three Sisters or Ibsen’s Ghosts with a mixed or all British East Asian cast, would be in for a very rough ride indeed. One only has to look at the reviews from around the globe when it comes to multiracial casting  – please I’d love to be proved wrong.

Is it fair, no. Will it continue to occur, yes. Will things change, possibly, but only if we ALL stand together and refuse to be complicit, refuse to enable this type of cultural  laundering of work.
It seems that there is still one rule for the culturally dominant in society and another for those that are not.