The problem for Equity and minority ethnic actors

Actors, like any other profession, benefit from a Trade Union, which represents them in matters relating to work.   Equity has been this body, representing actors for a long time.  An Equity Card formerly stood as a status symbol –  a badge of honour.

I became a member in 1989.  I did a tour in a smoky van for 6 months doing TIE in schools to become eligible and get my card.  Today it is not as difficult as it was then to become a member and membership numbers are flourishing, with over £4 million of income from subscriptions alone in 2013.  According to the latest statement available, 2013, Equity are doing pretty well with over £9 million in cash.

I have been working with actors for approaching 30 years and they are not in the least bit racist.  The acting profession is one of the most inclusive, it seems.  The people are nice and reasonable and it’s a pleasure to be one of them.

The year I joined Equity, 1989, was the year that Miss Saigon opened in the West End.  I ended up in that show in 1992.  I was cast in 1989 instead in the German language premiere of David Henry Hwang’s Tony-award winning play, M. Butterfly, in Hamburg.  I left the UK to do that and was pretty much out of it, being as I was in Germany before the Berlin Wall even had come down.

I did not think of it at that time, but Equity did not make any noise whatsoever about the fact that Jonathan Pryce was playing an East Asian part, complete with make up.  It was a different time, with Michael Gambon yet to play a blacked up Othello (as an Arab) and the theme tune of It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum was still well known.  I only started to think about the issue when, a year later in 1990, US Actor’s Equity kicked up an enormous fuss – in the US the protests were fronted by the playwright, whose play I had been working on, David Henry Hwang.

We all know what happened.  Actor’s Equity backed down.  Miss Saigon was a big hit.  Everyone seemed to forget about it.

But who was right?  What is the right side of the argument?  As time passes, do the choices seem more or less acceptable?

No one said much (to my recollection) at the time about Gambon’s Othello, but which white actor has plans to play him as a black man today?

25 years is a long time.  A generation.  A different time.  It couldn’t happen today.  But are arguments about black representation equally applied to East Asians?

Last year, 2014, very much in the now, Miss Saigon reopened with an East Asian actor, Jon Jon Briones in Pryce’s controversial part.  Jon Jon was the actor I replaced in 1992, as it goes.  Jon Jon has won awards for his work in the reboot.  He does it very well.

In 2013, Cameron Mackintosh’s casting department was unable to rule out again casting a white actor in this role.  It seems ridiculous now the point has been tipped, but it’s the truth.  I even invited head of casting Trevor Jackson to speak to Equity’s BAME members to tell us about his dilemma, which he gamely accepted.  Standing in front of 50+ Equity members, Trevor told us he wanted to do the right thing but could not promise anything.  The talent just wasn’t there, or he could not find it.   He knew it was the right thing to do but what if he couldn’t?   Trevor simply could not make promises.

Those of us present were seeing for ourselves whether society had indeed moved on in 25 years; whether we were indeed living in another time and as this episode unfurled, we looked on, mouth agape.   Could it actually be possible that a white actor could play this part?  And could Cameron Mackintosh really come to Equity and say it is so without Equity saying a word?

Yes!  That is exactly the situation!   It appeared as though Equity could and would make no statement about this – even though US Actors Equity did exactly that 23 years previously.  As far as Equity was concerned there was no generation gap.  It was not a different time at all.  Equity was still rooted in the 80s.

In 2012, the RSC decided to produce the play, The Orphan of Zhao, sometimes known as the “Chinese Hamlet”.  When casting was announced, of a cast of 17 (yes, seventeen) only 3 (yes, three – minor) roles were actually filled with East Asian actors, the other 14 (fourteen – 82%!) were not.  A quick check of the history of the RSC revealed that the last Chinese actor they had ever cast at all was in 1992, 20 years previously!  No actor with Chinese heritage at Stratford for 20 years.

It came as a surprise to us all.  We know that actors and people who work in acting are not racist.  They are in fact very much for inclusivity.  Yet somehow here were statistics and proof that Chinese actors had been excluded.   Somehow.  And to compound the matter, two of the three East Asian actors cast in this production were playing a dog – paying little heed to the long established and well known historic racist conflation of “dogs and Chinamen”.   It seemed incredible to East Asian actors, Chinese or not, and to broader members of the theatre community.

So where did these actors turn to make these points on their behalf?  Their trade union,  of course.  Equity.   Equity is comprised of these very inclusive and non-racist people.   Could Equity speak for them in this matter?

No.

What I discovered shocked me again.  I was at that time a member of Equity’s “Minority Ethnic Members” committee – an anachronistic term in itself.   The only other East Asian on that committee at that time was Daniel York and we both asked why Equity would not say anything on our behalf.  Make a statement.  Do something – anything – for the right side of the argument.

What was wrong with Equity?  We could not believe they were twiddling their thumbs.  We were long standing members and yet, looking back, they had done very little on the behalf of BAME members that we could recall.  In fact, Equity’s record on this was not very good.  Anthony Hopkins played a blacked-up Othello for the 1981 BBC film, after Equity had refused to allow James Earl Jones in to play the role.   Mike Newell has also stated recently that when he was casting Sour Sweet,  he had a meeting with Equity, which actually advised him to cast white actors and make them up.

It often seems as though Equity has a legacy of favouring white actors over BAME actors.

So it was in keeping with this legacy that in 2013 Equity would not make a statement backing the BAME actors, who felt so discriminated against.   Equity could not support them.

To make matters worse, the BAME actors were told that it was actually their own fault.

You see, Equity follows a Policy, for which we, the BAME members, are apparently responsible.  If that Policy doesn’t translate into Equity being able to act in a way to support and protect us from being excluded, then we, the “Minority Ethnic Members Committee”, have to change it.   We shouldn’t expect non-BAME or majority ethnic (aka white) actors to do it for us.  But here is the rub:  it’s not easy to do.

We can propose what we like, but the other Equity members need to vote for it – and the membership is 98% non-BAME.  These 98% are the same people who I have worked with for decades, am friends with and like.  They are not racist.  If they understood how we have been discriminated against  (20 years without a single Chinese actor working at the RSC has affected me personally, for instance), they would surely listen, sympathise and be willing to help.   In theory  we thought it would be easy enough to get the changes through and approved.  Sadly it hasn’t been.

It is now nearly three years since that meeting and that original ineffective Policy is still in place.  Equity appears still unable to say anything in any matters of casting controversy to do with race.   And these controversies are still happening.  The film, Exodus has had its share, with one of the actors actually apologising for it.  We don’t blame Joel Edgerton, he’s one of us.  An actor.  But we do blame whoever thought it was a good idea to cast him and make him up dark-skinned – as do a lot of people all around the world.

Equity should be able to make these statements on our behalf, so we don’t jeopardise our careers, which may or may not have already happened in the case of Daniel and me.  Equity in actual fact, however, said precisely nothing at all: leaving us in effect isolated by making public protestations such as this.  http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2012/oct/19/royal-shakespeare-company-asian-actors  How could a trade union, supposedly set up to protect actors’ work rights, who supposedly agrees with casting inclusivity not do anything to protect its BAME members?  How could it stand by and say nothing as their two East Asian “Minority Ethnic Committee” members denounced the decision as individuals?

During the last 3 years, we on the “Minority Ethnic Members Committee” have tried to remedy this (seemingly obvious) contradiction in Equity, and have failed.   Now in 2015 we are still concerned that the same outcome would happen again, were the Zhao situation to repeat itself.  Would Equity say nothing at all and again leave those of its membership brave enough to speak out  (for what most people believe in, lest we forget), hanging out to dry?

However, Equity is now on the cusp of making a change.  The “Minority Ethnic Members Committee” has drafted and sent to Council a rewrite of the unfit-for-purpose Policy, in which Equity now “advocates” good practice.   The council needs to approve it and that is why I am writing this.  To encourage them to vote for it while perhaps feeling a touch guilty that this has not happened years ago.

Getting to this stage, the Committee met with obfuscation, mis-direction, needless arguments and bad temperedness.  It has not been easy.  We were told by Equity staff we would get professional help to word the Policy.  None came.  Daniel York resigned in frustration – a sad end for the most effective member the “Minority Ethnic Members Committee” has ever had.  Equity, it seemed, did not want to change.  I have been close to resigning, also out of frustration at the slow pace and seeming resistance to what I consider to be just the right thing.

At our last meeting, we were warned by an experienced Equity staff member that the new wording , below, would not be accepted by the Equity’s Council.   Look at it, the proposed new “Inclusive Policy Statement”.    It is puzzling to imagine what any of the actors on Equity’s Council could possibly object to and yet we really remain worried that it will be rejected by our friends and colleagues and fellow Trade Unionists.  No one on our side can understand how this can possibly be.

Proposed new wording for Equity's Policy on Inclusive Casting
Proposed new wording for Equity’s Policy on Inclusive Casting – which has taken 3 years to write

But something seems to scare Equity from simply  adopting this.  At the first reading, the Council decided upon a tactic, which an old Equity Council member recalls as “kicking into the long grass” – a tactic, which I have never before in 4 years encountered;  not voting straight away, but first asking other committees to examine it and take a view.

This is OK, but when I asked why we were not told this might happen, so we could have saved time by contacting them first, instead of wasting even more time than the present 3 years and counting, I was openly pilloried by an Equity staff member.

I was used to that by this stage, though.  This is my own trade union, just to remind you!

The situation can be summed up as: Given that actors are not racist, Equity members are not racist and Equity staff are not racist; yet Equity’s BAME members feel that they are discriminated against (as in these two specific examples of Miss Saigon and Orphan of Zhao alone), what is going on?!  Is Equity itself racist?

Equity have, at long last, hired an equalities officer, who I imagine will examine this possibility and determine whether this is the case or not.  I will be interested to see what she comes up with.  http://www.thestage.co.uk/news/2015/equity-hires-first-dedicated-equalities-officer

Equity does not want to commit to the generally accepted correct side in the above inclusive casting arguments.  Equity does not want to commit to making any statement on matters such as the ones outlined.  Why?  Because Equity views that by doing so it would in effect be criticising (albeit on behalf of its BAME members) other members (ie the actors who have been cast ).  I think the staff believes this scenario can’t and won’t work and foresees it eventually becoming a potential ethical nightmare.

Why is Equity scared?

Equity, you understand, does not want to get involved in matters of artistic choice.  Equity believes that the decision to cast a white actor in a BAME part  is an artistic one, so they must not interfere.  This point of view – for an arts organisation – would be acceptable.

However Equity is not an arts organisation.  First and foremost it is a trade union, protecting its members working rights, which includes protection from discrimination.  And the question for Equity is whether artistic rights trump workers’ rights.

What about the BAME member of Equity, whose right to be seen and considered for this part has been harmed by an artistic decision?  Who is speaking up for them? Protecting them?  When the outcome of these artistic decisions always seems to exclude actors of colour, someone needs to speak.  When the artistic decisions all seem to be exactly the same i.e choosing a white actor and excluding an actor of colour even from the casting process, it is not artistic.  It is prejudice, bias and convention.

Equity is compromised and has chosen to hide behind the status quo, which everybody accepts provides poor outcomes for BAME actors.

Equity feels scared because it has placed artistic license extremely high up on their priority list.  Equity needs to look at this and re-set the dial.  Surely when the right of the BAME member to work is in direct opposition to an artistic ideology, at least in cases such as this, then the actor – the member who pays his subscription fees – should be a higher priority to his Trade Union?  In this day and age (after all), which of the two oppositional standpoints do you think should be set as a higher priority for Equity?

I believe that Equity needs to re-prioritise itself.  I also believe Equity is the correct place BAME actors should turn to in cases like this.  Equity should be proud to support its BAME members instead of running scared and saying nothing.

Why is Equity scared?

The fact that Act for Change and British East Asian Artists have formed in the past 3 years to make these arguments, shows that these arguments have a great deal of support among UK’s BAME acting community.  Equity has donated money to Act for Change, supporting their ideology.  Lenny Henry argues the point so very well.  There is a general feeling in society that it is time for a change with regards to depictions of race, portrayal and representation.  Yet Equity itself stays silent, rooted in the ’80s (and arguably before even then).

Equity, I believe, wants to support its BAME members but is scared of being compromised.  I don’t think it should be.  I believe it should be bold and brave and be leading from the front, not playing catch-up from a generation ago.

The rewritten policy document states :

Because African, Caribbean, South Asian, East Asian, Arabic and other minority ethnic artists continue to be the subject of discrimination they should be given preferential consideration in the casting of parts specifically written for these ethnic minority groups.  Equity calls for this to be attempted wherever possible. 

To lead from the front, Equity and its members must try and redress historical imbalances before worrying about any artistic points of principle.  It should not tacitly approve of any productions casting a white actor in a black role or any role of “colour” by making no comment.   This lets down its BAME members and is not the way forward.

The change in Policy does not call on Equity to denounce the actor – but to disapprove of the process of making that choice as not being best practice.  It’s simple, and to us all paying our subs, very important.

If Equity can’t do that then no matter how nice the members are and how non racist they are, if they don’t allow this change to become Equity’s policy, they are supporting an old fashioned status quo, which discriminates against BAME members and puts the white members in a position of privilege, wittingly or not.

By adopting this new policy as best practice, Equity will, for the time being at least, be redressing the historic imbalance that has long seen minority groups be discriminated against in the past.   Equity will become truly a vocal supporter of inclusivity.  It is long overdue and about time too.

The Fu Manchu Complex – less a review, more a commendation

The Fu Manchu Complex is a new play currently playing at the Oval House.  It is written by Daniel York, a colleague of mine, who I have known for over 20 years and who like me, is British born Chinese.  Like me too, he grew up here in UK and trained to be an actor in the 80s, like me not thinking his whole career would be defined by the fact that his father was born in SE Asia.   In fact it is arguable that were it not for the fact that his father is Singaporean and mine Guyanese (not exactly close, geographically – though they do look similar) Daniel and I would never have met, let alone done so many projects together.

Our entire careers have been defined by this one thing.   And guess what?  Given how little significance it had on my (our) lives growing up this is a frustrating thing.   We both dealt with this in similar yet different ways.  At the recommendation of the Chinese detective himself, David Yip, I changed the spelling of my professional name 20 years ago to appear more East Asian.  Daniel recently adopted this cynical approach, adding the name Loh to his actual name.  It is a smart move in this shallow industry.

When I first saw Daniel, he was acting in a production of Chay Yew’s first play, Porcelain.   It was in a tiny fringe venue, the Etcetera, and the house was not even full.  It was a great performance in a great show and this led to him going to the RSC for a season.  When my flatmate, Tony, started in Stratford, around 1993-94, Daniel was already there and we were introduced.   I even went to watch one of the plays he was in, Moby Dick.  We both, 20 years ago, did not realise the significance our being East Asian, albeit only half, would have on our fledgling careers.  Here was he, at the RSC, playing non-ethnic parts and I had just finished playing Hiawatha at the Royal Lyceum, and Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice at the Sherman and a big tour of Wales.  There was good reason for optimism that our ethnicity would not affect our careers.  It didn’t pan out that way.

Cut to the RSC’s Orphan of Zhao 20 years later in 2012 and it is incredible and saddening to think that Daniel York (Loh)’s 1993 appearance in that season was the last time an East Asian actor had been employed at Stratford before then.  I don’t remember Moby Dick very well, but I do recall Dan having a significant part, which only highlights how retrograde a move the casting of The Orphan of Zhao (where only three East Asians of 17 were cast – in minor parts) actually was.

Daniel and I have dealt with this unforeseen and enforced straitjacketing of our acting careers in similar ways.  We have both become activists for the rights of East Asian representation in the industry, being the two East Asian Equity reps on the committee which got the Opening the Door thing going,  have both been brave enough to speak out about it in an industry where this is mostly feared, and we have both written satires to highlight the relative low status the East Asian has at the Equal opps / diversity table.

The play, The Fu Manchu Complex, is Daniel’s.  I won’t attempt a conventional review here. You can read other bloggers and reviewers, who have done that.  What I will say about it is this.  Go and see it.  I saw it myself on Saturday and laughed out loud on numerous occasions.  It is genuinely funny in places and the entire cast is East Asian in heritage.  Its cheap and its easy to get to and its funny.  And its short.  All the things that I like in a show.

More importantly than all of that, however, and what makes it more significant in my opinion than any of the other wonderful plays that can be seen this month featuring East Asian actors, ( Chimerica, World of Extreme Happiness, Golden Child ) is that this was written by a British East Asian writer.  This is so rare that surely this in itself needs to be supported.  That it aims to turn a spotlight on the whole issue of East Asian stereotyping itself, which Daniel and I know from 1st hand experience all too well, and does so in an at times hilarious way, is the bonus.

The Opening the Door initiative, which is in some quarters being debated as responsible for this current unprecedented showing of East Asian actors is nothing of the sort.  The Fu Manchu Complex is the nearest thing that is of real significance in opening any door whatsoever.  While I am all for China being the flavour of the month and am a great fan of the great American Asian playwright David Henry Hwang, the fact that a new British East Asian playwright is being brave, funny and clever is the one thing that I don’t want to overlook.  I predict in fact that in another 20 years, of all the productions this year, this play will be the one with the most historical interest and significance to the advancement of British East Asians and our struggle to be taken seriously.

Opening the door … and keeping the door open

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.

monitoring form

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.