Controversy had been brewing for a month previously. According to the theatre’s website at the time, the play is set in “Ancient China”, concerns an “Emperor” and “Imperial Court” and features characters called “Chin” and “Mrs. Hu”, but is peopled with an entirely white cast who (without wishing to sound too ironically stereotypical) one would normally expect to see on TV taking tea with Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey.
I should also point out that in the UK we have to refer to ourselves as “East Asians” as “Asia” in the UK means South Asian (we are completely demarcated) and we also have to say “British East Asians” to make the point that, yes, we do belong in this country too. A point emphatically emphasised when the Print Room, in response to the initial outcry (but after refusing, seemingly, to engage in any dialogue whatsoever with protestors) issued a clumsy confusing statement which attempted to argue that the play was in fact “very English” but the Chinese setting was chosen to invoke “the universal and the folkloric”.
So, in other words, Chinese people are not “English” whilst white people evidently are and white actors get to be “universal” as well. The Print Room compounded this even further, as social media protest built, with another calamitously tone-deaf statement in which they actually told people they shouldn’t get offended and further elaborated on their concept that China is somehow not a real place. You can read it here if you like.
There is history here. Plenty of it. Prior to 2012 it’s fair to say British East Asians were literally nowhere to be seen in British theatre. I lost count of the number of times I wrote to various artistic directors politely pointing out that there were no East Asian actors on their stages and East Asian characters were being played by actors who were not East Asian. Most often I was simply ignored. Other times I’d be told they’d try and be aware but “things don’t change overnight”. The productions would go on, theatre critics would review them and no one would even notice the little yellow people who weren’t there.
All this changed in 2012 when a mass social media protest aimed at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC)’s production of the Chinese classic The Orphan of Zhao, which was cast with three East Asians in a cast of 17, all playing minor roles including a maid and a dog, went literally viral and global causing immense embarrassment to arguably the biggest and most famous theatre company in the world. It caused a seismic sea change in British theatre and since then a steady stream of productions (but still not enough!)-Chimerica, The Arrest of Ai Wei Wei, The World of Extreme Happiness, You For Me For You, P’yongyang and Sugar-Coated Bullets of The Bourgeoisie-all achieved major success with predominantly (in most cases entirely) British East Asian casts, while writers such as Insook Chappell, Amy Ng and even myself found their work reaching the stage.
It’s my humble opinion that all this was achieved via the RSC protest. But we didn’t have to take to the streets on that occasion. The RSC, to their immense credit, engaged on the issue and helped with industry wide initiatives to address the historic imbalance. In fact, I’m lucky enough at this very moment to be part of a 13 strong all-East Asian cast rehearsing for a production of Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s Snow In Midsummer as we speak.
Unfortunately, the Print Room were not similarly proactive. The final straw was an email they sent to their “supporters”, leaked to us, when they complained of a “social media attack” by a “small number” of “members of the public….without consulting us”. The amount of blatant untruths in such a brief flow of words here is extraordinary but I’ll stick to the fact that myself, theatre director Andrew Keates and the actors’ union Equity had all attempted to contact them but to no avail.
Andrew Keates it was who decided enough was enough and that we were going to protest outside the theatre on their opening night. I should point out here that Andrew is a white man with no hint of Asian blood. Yet he’d become engaged with the issue of British East Asian stage presence whilst pre-planning his production of David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish at the Park Theatre this March.
I’d always wondered what it was like to protest a theatre. I remember vividly the news footage of the Miss Saigon protests on Broadway in 1990 when I was graduating from drama school. In fact, I was in a bar with my then agent who I can remember looking up at the TV showing images of placard waving Asians (we were called “orientals” then) and sighing “oh goodness, how ridiculous”. It stung then and it stings now.
Miss Saigon of course actually featured an actor, the redoubtable Jonathan Pryce, in yellow make-up and taped eyelids. The Print Room do no such thing. In fact I’m pretty sure they’ve hastily redesigned every aspect of the play, including ignoring several very specific stage directions about “deep bowing”, to appear as “un Asian” as possible. But yellowface isn’t about make-up. Yellowface is a person who is not of East Asian descent playing a character of East Asian descent. Yellowface, like blackface and brownface, is a remnant of a time when actors of colour were simply not allowed on our stages. If you take an East Asian character and cast it with a white actor, you’re effectively saying there is no East Asian actor who was good enough/clever enough/talented enough/capable enough to play it.
Or they simply did not exist.
In other words: erasure. And that won’t do in 2017.
The protest itself was an absolute blast. A thing of impossible beauty. We had arguable the three most well-known East Asian actors in Britain there in the shape of Katie Leung (Cho Chang in the Harry Potter films), Gemma Chan (from the TV series Humans) and Benedict Wong (Dr. Strange and the Marco Polo TV series). Benny it was who led the joyous singalong, with rather po-faced Print Room audience members entering and leaving the building to a multi-cultural, placard waving, dancing crowd of 200 regaling them with a chorus of “Don’t You Want Me, Baby”.
Alongside Benny, Gemma and Katie though were also some very fine and prolific actors who may not be seen so often or prominently on our screens but have delivered fine performances in theatres across London and in small-scale films, alongside directors, writers and academics in a powerful display of solidarity.
As joyous as it was there was of course some ugliness. Some of the punters were angered with us. One senior female theatre industry figure, wearing a rather impressive-looking fur coat, stormed across the street to berate the protestors as “racist”. Another man called me a “cunt” repeatedly before aiming a spit down at the pavement but in my direction with a clear meaning: I spit on you.
I even had a comical argument when the sole Asian member of the audience that night approached me on his way into the theatre and decried our efforts as ridiculous. When I asked him why he said it was “obvious”. When I asked him why it was “obvious” he stumbled, stammered and eventually muttered “well, I haven’t thought of my argument”. There’s an alternative Asian critic’s view of the production here.
Here’s what I say to that. Disagree all you like but at least do it from a place of engagement and knowledge not just because your posh white friends have told you to. The days of the subaltern model minority Asian surely have to be over. This is our country, our taxes, our spaces. We have just as much right to be there as any white person.
Our love is not dead or in the depths. Our love is real #StopYellowface
There were several brilliant films made of the protest. Here’s Georgie Yukiko Donovan’s