I did my first bit of acting in some time yesterday, rehearsing a reading which will be performed later tonight at a Tamasha Theatre “scratch night” in Shoreditch. Its an extract of a new play, Summer Rolls, written by a British Vietnamese writer, Tuyen Do. I have yet to meet her, but it is a good solid play and will do well, I think, and she is obviously highly talented.
My old colleague and comrade in arms, Daniel York, has his play, The Fu Manchu Complex, currently in rehearsal for a run that starts soon at the Oval House theatre. He first mentioned his incredulity at the racist language and imagery present in the Fu Manchu novels (by author Sax Rohmer) to me some 14 years ago and I am pleased for him personally that he has managed to get funding for it. I can’t wait to see it. He has worked hard for years to get to this point and congratulations to him.
At last it appears that British East Asians are getting their voices heard on British stages – as well as appearing on them.
The industry is currently pleased with itself for putting on Chimerica (Almeida and West End) and #aiww (Hampstead) and The World of Extreme Happiness (The RNT’s Shed), not to mention Miss Saigon and employing an enormous number of East Asian actors. This year we also had a resurfacing of David Henry Hwang in the capital, with an excellent production of Yellowface before summer and Golden Child coming soon. Its all looking quite exciting. It is as if the RSC’s Zhao-gate crisis has started the ball rolling. But has it really?
Before anybody starts noshing anyone off about how great things are now and how things have turned around, I feel I need to add a note of caution.
Just over a year ago, the RSC had not employed a single actor of East Asian descent on their stages for 20 years. The RNT had hardly done much better. They acknowledged this, and a mini online movement, dubbed Zhao-gate, ensued. This eventually resulted in an Equity-led event, “Opening the Door”, which was designed to spotlight this historic imbalance and.. er…open the door for us East Asians. Given the unprecedented action in the industry at present, it appears to have worked
But does Zhao-gate and Opening the Door have anything to do with what is happening now? The current fascination with China has led to the above 2013 productions and it’s not before time. But does this really mean that the industry’s slate of historically overlooking East Asians on its stages has been wiped clean? Has the door been opened? NO. Emphatically not.
Employing East Asian actors in an East Asian play is not really something the RNT should get overly praised for, it is only the done thing. Zhao-gate notwithstanding. Of course I acknowledge it’s good that they are doing the play at all, but not only is it about time the RNT produced something about / set in East Asia, does a production in the Shed really give the Royal National Theatre a get out of jail free card after all these years? Hmmm… After careful consideration, I conclude no. Not in itself. They could do better. As could the RSC and others. I am worried that they actually might feel they have done their bit for East-West race relations, when they could in fact make a more impactful statement and do it easily now.
It is very simple and has been in their power all this time. The RSC and the RNT (in fact any theatre – though these big publicly funded flagship theatres should lead the way) must cast East Asian actors in roles that are not East Asian, in much the same way as they cast black and (south) Asian actors. In fact, when they are about to cast a black or (south) Asian actor in a non race specific part, if they really wanted to redress the historic imbalance they should look twice and recast him with an East Asian!
Film and TV are not excluded from this, incidentally. It is rarely the case that an East Asian pops up on the telly in a part that is not specifically related to his being from East Asia. Casting directors are not open to receiving a submission for an East Asian actor when the part in Casualty is calling for a Dr Gupta to say a few lines. But why not?
Opening the Door should have been called Opening the Eyes (subtitle: of the Industry).
In the Casualty example, the writer is making his intentions clear to the casting department that this Doctor can be played by any ethnic actor. Yet the chances of being seen for this part as an East Asian actor are low. It happens, but not that often. You just need to watch tv to know this is true.
TV and theatre don’t even do ethnic monitoring of their auditionees, something we East Asians all think they should to avoid this institutional racism, if Opening the Door is anything to go by.
Even when Ethnic & Diversity monitoring happens, we as a group are all bunched into one afterthought, as you can see from the BFI Ethic and Diversity Monitoring Form, below.
Note that while on this form it is acknowledged that people can be ‘Black British’ or ‘Asian British’, there is no such similar acknowledgement given for the Chinese or (to add insult to the Japanese, Koreans, Thais, Malays, etc.) “any other backgrounds”.
We still need to keep an eye on that door. It doesn’t look open to me yet.