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British East Asian actors speak out against “The Orphan of Zhao”

November 19, 2012

Britain’s esteemed Royal Shakespeare Company is producing the 13th century Chinese play, “The Orphan of Zhao,” with no British East Asain actors in principal roles. In fact, two of the three East Asian actors play a maid and a dog puppeteer, respectively. As a result, actors of Asian descent in the UK and around the world have spoken out and asked RSC to do better. Racebending.com is privileged to share the following guest blog from actor Daniel York, one of the hardworking actors leading the protest. York shares his thoughts on the controversy and his personal experiences as a RSC actor in the UK.

James Tucker as Zhao Dun and Lucy Briggs-Owen as The Princess in “The Orphan of Zhao.” [source]

In Britain, the storm over the esteemed Royal Shakespeare Company’s casting of their production of the Chinese classic The Orphan Of Zhao can only be described as unprecedented. The reaction to this most venerated of theatre companies’ decision to cast this– the first Chinese play they’ve ever produced–with a cast of 17 mainly white actors and with only three actors from East Asian backgrounds (none of whom can be described as playing a leading role, in fact many critics have described them as “minor,”) has shaken the theatrical establishment in Britain to the core.

Much of the press coverage has been cursory, shallow and completely failed to take account of the wide scale of anger and hurt expressed from as far afield as Australia, Malaysia, Canada and the United States, where Tony award winning playwright David Henry Hwang described the casting as saying “less about Britain’s Asian acting community, than it does about the RSC’s laziness and lack of artistic integrity.” Asian American actress Janice Park moved me to tears with an open letter to the Company which said that their decision made her “not wish to act in the theater anymore, not wish to dream anymore because why should I dream so high when man can only achieve so little…”

Joe Dixon depicts “Tu’an Gu” beheading the maid played by Susan Momoko Hingley in “The Orphan of Zhao”

The RSC defended its decisions on two counts. One is that they saw “lots and lots” of East Asian actors but in the end opted for “colour blind casting” and simply cast the “best actor for the role”. Generally, Joe Public is satisfied with this response, but a closer examination will reveal that the actors playing leading roles at the RSC are usually in the British classical theatre “circuit” which is very much a “no go zone” for East Asian actors.

East Asian actors can generally only audition for poorly written tokenistic roles, often in awful broken English and possessing not a jot of the wit, charisma and sex appeal of a Harry Hotspur, a Jack Worthing, a Hedda Gabler or even a Horatio. This makes it nigh on impossible for an East Asian Actor to build a track record that would make a company like the RSC feel secure in casting them in a lead role. I fully support casting “the best actor for the role” but only when there is a fully level playing field for the “best” to be assessed fairly. I also support “colour blind casting” but only as a mechanism for creating opportunities for actors from minority groups for whom chances are few and far between–not as a means of protecting those opportunities for the dominant social demographic.

Two actors rehearse as the dog puppet in “The Orphan of Zhao” [source]

The other argument is that as the play is in repertoire with two others–Pushkin’s Boris Godunov and Brecht’s The Life Of Galileo, plays set in Russia and Italy respectively– they could never have cast an “all East Asian” cast – something that I believe most of us would’ve accepted were even two or three of the leading roles played by East Asian actors. There does seem to exist in the eyes of the UK industry the idea that white British people can play literally any race but that “minorities” have to be more specific, particularly East Asians. (Though I rather think there are places in Russia where one or two of us Asians might look more at home than they do!)

There has been much anger about the fact that despite their protestations, we (as an admittedly small community) have only managed to locate eight East Asian actors who were auditioned, including the three cast. While I understand this, it is not my primary concern. Personally, I’d rather they auditioned six and cast five than auditioned forty and only cast two. For me, it’s all about the will to put people on the stage. You can hold all the auditions you like, but if the will isn’t there it’s immaterial, in my humble opinion.

Last year, when I cast my short film Mercutio’s Dreaming: The Killing Of A Chinese Actor (shameful plug!) which was recently nominated for four awards at the World Independent Music & Film Festival (more shameful plug!) I only auditioned four actors for the lead role owing to time constraints. The difference is that I was fully committed to casting an East Asian actor. Either way you look at it it’s clear that, for whatever reason, casting East Asians wasn’t terribly high on the RSC’s priorities. This comes as a shock from the same Company that recently gave us an all black Julius Caesar set in Africa and an all (South) Asian Much Ado About Nothing set in India. But as East Asians we’ve gotten rather too used to being the “forgotten minority”.

I’m going to come clean here. I was one of the actors who auditioned for The Orphan of Zhao. In fact, apart from the three actors who were cast, I’m the only one I know who was recalled to meet another director for one of the other plays in the season. This has of course led to accusations on various blog forums of my “sour grapes.” But I have to say that in a way, I am thrilled–after not having acted on stage in Britain for four years–to have been considered so seriously, after years of being excluded because I’m mixed-race, half-Chinese, and being told countless times I’m “not Chinese enough” for all manner of truly appalling television roles. Though of course, it’s mind–race!–bendingly frustrating to have a part you genuinely could’ve played go to someone who’s not remotely Chinese, simply because they couldn’t conceive of you being in a Russian or German play. There’s a very special kind of torment there!

Graham Turner as “Cheng Ying” and Jake Fairbrother as “Cheng Bo” in “The Orphan Of Zhao.”

The Royal Shakespeare Company. I first went there when I was an eager 19 year old student on a college trip to see Macbeth starring Jonathan Pryce (who would later to run into a “yellowface” storm for his portrayal in Miss Saigon.) This was in the late 1980’s when there was a whole debate going on in British theatre about whether black actors could play roles in theatre productions. One UK theatre director–I wish I could remember who!–was quoted in a newspaper as saying that black actors would struggle in Shakespeare as “it wasn’t in their culture”. The production I saw that evening featured two black actors: Hugh Quarshie as Banquo and (I think) Patrick Robinson as The Bloody Sergeant (and, evidently, Quarshie’s understudy). As a mixed-race fledgling actor from a “non theatrical” background, the significance of their presence on the stage was not lost on me. I looked up at them from my seat in the stalls wondering if my racial heritage would prove an impediment to my progress in the career I’d set my heart on.

It’s easy to forget that the last “blacked up” Othello in Britain was as recently as 1990 – the year I graduated from drama school (where my principal had told me I’d be “fine” when they remade Charlie Chan). At first, though I seemed to be doing okay. I played the lead role in Chay Yew’s seminal work Porcelain, which transferred to London’s prestigious Royal Court theatre where I was seen by Alan Rickman who recommended me to play Fortinbras opposite his Hamlet before I arrived at that most celebrated of institutions: The Royal Shakespeare Company. Though it’s fair to say I often felt slightly like a fish out of water–the company which has since gone on to give us numerous black and (South) Asian actors in challenging roles was then very much a white middle class haven–I enjoyed my time there.

There were awkward moments, sure. One was where–in my largest role as a character called “Tahiti” in Moby Dick–I was told by the director (not part of the RSC “establishment,” in fairness) to be more “inscrutable.” Another was when at a company meeting, Exec Producer Michael Attenborough spoke of a play they had in development–which has never surfaced–set in “Indo China” and the entire company turned as one and looked at me. But on the whole, my time there was extremely beneficial and I’d often hoped I might go back, though this looked further and further out of reach as, despite managing to play roles such as De Flores in The Changeling, Mercutio, and Tartuffe, as well as forging an eventually award-winning alternative career in Singapore (my father’s birthplace), it was clear my career was anything but “high profile.”

So, yes, The Orphan Of Zhao was a bitter blow to me, as it was to practically all British East Asian actors–even the ones who have remained silent. Bitter, because it often feels as if the UK theatre industry has sat back smugly congratulating itself on the increased number of black and South Asian faces on our stages while we remain marginalized, excluded and (in the words of one of the protestors at the recent La Jolla Playhouse Nightingale furor) “not good enough to play ourselves”. It sometimes even appears as if we’ve been cowed into silence by the very obvious double standards in the British liberal psyche which is happy to express outrage on behalf of black actors who are ever denied a role yet sneers in derision when East Asians have the temerity to raise the same concerns. Well, it seems this is no longer the case. We have spoken and we have spoken in number.

Jake Fairbrother as Cheng Bo and Philip Whitchurch as Wei Jiang in The “Orphan of Zhao” [source]

And it seems we’ve been heard. In my capacity as Equity Minority Ethnic Members Committee Vice Chair, I have attended meetings with both the RSC as well as the Arts Council (which funds the RSC to the tune of £15 million a year in taxpayer money), and the Society Of London Theatres, where there seems to at last be a very real and sincere wish to finally address the invisibility of East Asian performers on British stages. We are in the early planning stages for a series of events aimed at raising the profile and increasing opportunities for East Asian actors that are due to take place in London next year. A coalition “organisation” made up of UK East Asian performers called “British East Asian Artists” has been formed. Central to its remit will of course be to keep the issue of East Asian UK media representation very much in the spotlight. Already raised voices from a previously silent community have succeeded in getting every single theatre critic to make mention of the casting controversy in their reviews of Orphan Of Zhao, thereby keeping the issue “live” (no mean feat in regards to something that has simply been ignored time and time again, so little does it register in the consciousness of the typically white middle aged middle class UK theatre critic).

In my humble opinion, the RSC have been misguided and thoughtless rather than malicious. I hope–and I believe–they will take this opportunity to prove what a truly great company they are by integrating East Asian artistes onto their stages soon. It’s often a knee jerk reaction towards “disgruntled actors” to claim that they probably weren’t good enough and this is sometimes applied to our entire racial group. I can remember well that 25 years ago the voices of conservatism would try and argue the fanciful notion that black actors weren’t very good. 30 years before that it was working class actors. Actors need to be given chances.

I hope we will now get ours.

Categories: blog, Featured, History and Concepts
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About the Author

Daniel York is a leading member of a group of British East Asian actors protesting the casting of "The Orphan of Zhao" produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company. He is the vice chair of Equity's ethnic minority committee.

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  • Totally agree that the RSC is lacking artistic integrity. A thought came to mind though that when I was younger I felt an uneasiness when watching an Asian American cast at church performances of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Granted, the scale and publicity are entirely different for these two scenarios but I do remember thinking, “uhhh… I’m pretty sure Jesus wasn’t Asian.” Then again, he wasn’t Italian either, but he is portrayed as such in Da Vinci’s Last Supper and that portrayal has informed much of our public perception of what he was believed to have looked like.

    As an adult, I’ve departed from my religious roots, but the cautionary tale I’m posing is that the “white washing” of individual performances may have a ripple effect that dilutes the message and significance of the original works.

    • I think context is everything.

      I recall watching performances of western pieces when I was in Hon Kong. Obviously much of the cast was Asians playing westerners. But that was really the only practical solution, it didn’t really detract from the story (it was not really race based) and westerners aren’t really doing it hard in HK anyway.

      I don’t think the RSC lacks integrity (yet); I reckon they didn’t even ponder it because this is probably all new to them. It is how they choose to act in the future after this event that will be most telling.

      • Mudbuddha

        “they didn’t even ponder it because this is probably all new to them.” Institutional oppression (and institutional privilege) is usually “new” to the privileged – even though they’ve experienced it for 500+ years.

        The relevant context here – imo – is that minorities are _already_ under-represented and type-casted. This is the norm – it’s nothing new. This casting only highlights the power and institutional dynamics that already exist…

    • Mudbuddha

      To add to your observation, God and Adam & Eve are also portrayed as “white” – what does that do to a person’s conception of self and the divine?

      Western society likes to preach that race doesn’t matter (that’s why Asian roles can be cast white) but obviously – race matters quite a bit (the casting doesn’t work the same in reverse).

  • Anna Chen

    Thanks to Daniel for laying out so clearly the events that led British East Asians (BEAs) to kick up about this. I still want to hear what the RSC have to say for themselves as it is far from clear if they understand the issues, but I hope that the Equity initiative that Dan is part of ushers in a new era of fair representation for all ethnic minorities and brings BEAs in from the cold. (Note that there were three ethnic actors working one dog puppet onstage.)
    The BEAA statement can be found here: http://madammiaow.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/rsc-orphan-of-zhao-brit-east-asian.html

  • Raiden

    Personally, I dont see the issue with casting whites in a live action Stage production Like this. I have issues with FILMS whitewashing casting, but not stage plays. Nobody at my college complained about a phillipino kid playing the lead role of a mexican american in a production

  • We need to get rid of the idea that the “best actor” for a role is based purely on talent and skill with no consideration towards appearance. When a casting director looks for actors, he has a particular look in mind. He accepts and rejects people based on appearance as well as skill and any casting director who denies this is lying. The RSC cast white people to play Chinese parts but I doubt they would cast a Chinese actor as Hamlet.

  • APA actor

    Daniel York is the man! Fight the good fight, brother.

    We Asians in the Occidental world has to go generate our own content and support positive depictions rather than hoping for table scraps or latch unto BS auto-racist media depictions.

  • Asians have the absolute right to play themselves on stage. More specifically, Asian men have the right to be the Lead when the story calls for it.

    I’m a Korean-American actor in Chicago who recently took on the largest non-Equity theater in the city in regards to the stage adaptation of Barry Hughart’s “The Bridge of Birds: A Novel of and Ancient China That Never Was.” I emailed and met repeated with the Caucasian artistic and managing directors. To their credit, the ladies listened and learned through me and through the voices from La Jolla Playhouse. Therefore, the production has been postponed until they can cast and adapt in keeping with the Chinese culture of the story. Here’s the blog I wrote standing up for my Asian brothers.


  • Pingback: Exclusion in “The Orphan of Zhao” (Racebending) « hist2640()

  • screer31

    Yeah, you guys are officially desperate.

    I am a Korean-Canadian, and I don’t give a fuck about all this. Of course it would be nicer to have Asians playing Asian roles in theatre. But we all know there just aren’t that many. Of course the more experienced actors are white, how many Asians are there in theatre? If they put an Asian or black guy in the place of a traditionally white character everyone would just applaud it as progressive and tell complainers to fuck off and stop being racist. You know it.

    Like the guy up there I also witnessed a nativity scene growing up in Korea where all the actors portraying Biblical characters were Korean. Even the drawing of Jesus they had in the church drew him like a Korean sage when everyone knew he wasn’t. Is that an outrage? No. Who cares? We obviously don’t hate Middle Easterners or whatever race Jesus is. There’s no bad intentions there. I’ll be as offended as you guys when whites are maliciously yellowfacing and intentionally insulting us. I don’t see that happening, no matter what the social justice crowd keeps crowing about.

    You guys had a case with Avatar, I agree there. But Cloud Atlas and everything else is just exaggerated outrage.

    • happyappa

      Your race (if you are really asian anyway) doesn’t really add to your argument.

      “Of course the more experienced actors are white”
      Well gee, when white people are always cast in poc roles, when do pocs even get the chance to gain that experience?

      “If they put an Asian or black guy in the place of a traditionally white
      character everyone would just applaud it as progressive and tell
      complainers to fuck off and stop being racist.”
      Everyone? Well all those white people will think it’s racist and unfair when any role isn’t about them. Like God forbid a black guy plays James Bond, but it’s totally fine for a white guy to be Tony Mendez. There’s a difference between a poc playing a traditionally white character, and a white person taking a role for poc. Go educate yourself.

      Cloud Atlas is not exaggerated outrage, it’s justified and the whole concept of using white people to play pocs is stupid to say the least.

      • screer31

        Are you actually Asian or some kind of south Asian who buy into their western ideologies?

        Look how stupid your arguments are. Look at the lingo you use. Theirs. White liberals’.

        Asians will play Asian roles whenever they can. But there’s hardly any experienced Asians in theatre so they found some white guys. That’s an outrage? Who cares? I’d be ashamed if my kids went into theatre instead of a useful career.

        Anyone that passes for whatever race the role is supposed to be should be considered first, and replaced with different race actor only if it was meant to be edgy or something. Anything else is offensive.

        >hurr double standards because they’re the oppressive majority

        Maybe you intend to live in America forever and make it your new home, but people like me consider my Asian homeland to be the top priority. Keep plugging that western “social justice” garbage, and those standards will be applied to East Asian countries someday. I already hear people whining about how racist Asians are, it’s just the next step. If they ever start attacking us for having ethnic privilege in our own homeland, it’s people like you who made it happen.

        • happyappa

          I bring up your race, which you mentioned, because it does not make your argument magically 100% valid. This is the internet and yes you could be lying anyway

          lol my lingo is what white liberals use??? what exactly is “white liberal” about what I said? and what the hell is “social justice”? All you are doing is ignoring why the racism is wrong.

          “But there’s hardly any experienced Asians in theatre so they found some white guys. That’s an outrage? Who cares?”

          That’s your argument? “Who cares?” I already explained why this is problematic and that’s your reply? lol.

          Sorry I’m not sorry for wanting Asians to have equal opportunities and representation in America. I’m not going to sit back and not say anything about white privilege, yellowface, and whitewashing and I sincerely hope the same thing that is happening in America does not happen (more) in the East. The crap that happens in the “west” doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it affects your homeland and mine.

          • screer31

            Now I know you’re completely clueless. Do you even know what we’re talking about?

            White people are not the center of the world. There are 2 kinds of people in my world. East Asians, and nons. Encouraging an ideology of “equality” and other social justice garbage is detrimental to local populations everywhere. The more you go on about white privilege the closer we get to some liberal piece of garbage telling me about Han privilege and how ashamed I should be. No. I intend to be regarded superior, and have access to majority and normative privilege in my own homeland. The fuck with what happens to your SEA diaspora. If the cost of preventing western ideology from infecting Asia means you people have to put up with some discrimination, so be it. There’s a lot more of us than you, don’t be selfish.

          • happyappa


            “White people are not the center of the world.”
            Yeah but unfortunately a lot of other people don’t think that way. White people do have privilege, and ignoring this issue is not going to make it go away. If they didn’t, I doubt yellowfacing and whitewashing would be happening as much among other things

            A point of wanting equality is so it doesn’t happen. My opinions do matter and I am SICK of people belittling, ridiculing, whitewashing real asian people and characters.
            Lol I have as much right as you to want to be a poc regarded as superior, so hell no I’m not shutting up. “You’re hurting your cause more than helping” is just a silly derailing tactic.

            “There’s a lot more of us than you, don’t be selfish.”
            Wow I’m having deja vu where a white person told me my opinions didn’t matter because I was a “minority”. Being part of the majority population on earth doesn’t give privilege.

            You can daydream in your own little world where you don’t have to think about real racial issues. You go on and do that by yourself.

          • screer31

            Wow, this is the extent of western brainwashing. The fact that you think this is about white people just shows how utterly clueless you are. Do you even have any reading comprehension? Are you american or something?

            We’re not talking about “equality”. That’s just feel-good moralist nonsense westerners indulge in. We don’t live in your little liberal community paradise. All people should put their own first, and I do. As far I’m concerned, East Asia and its people come before all others. You think yellowface in some western country is gonna be a real problem when MY homeland is being destabilized by foreign immigrants and racialized politics?

            You’re not hurting your cause, your cause is hurting you. That is, if
            you’re actually Asian and haven’t drank the west’s ideological kool-aid.

            If whites want to bend over for minorities and outsiders, that’s their business. I want no part of it. No white, black, or brown is equal to me in my homeland. I don’t even consider non Asians my equal when I live in THEIR country.

            What does that have to do with you? To uphold moral standards of equality and privileged guilt ANYWHERE is to endanger our supremacy in our homeland simply by giving foreigners a chance to apply that same standard to us. Much of the majority privilege stuff you say about whites can be said about US in OUR native countries. Get it now? Just because they’re fixated on whites at the moment doesn’t mean it won’t turn to others. This is why there are proportionally far fewer East Asians doing the “anti-racist” activism bullshit than say, blacks. Because we know better. We have FORESIGHT. Not because we love whites and hate ourselves. But because we don’t judge things based on “equality” and other childish idealism. We put our supremacy and competitive position first. Nearly all East Asians who haven’t been westernized understand this on some level, even if we don’t say it publicly. You are obviously NOT one of us.

          • If you think anti-racist activism is “bullshit,” why waste your time on an anti-racist website?

          • screer31

            To let you know it’s bullshit before this kind of thinking infects my (your) ethnic homeland. To let you know that your relatively minor grievances of racism in the west is not worth risking the ethnic and cultural sanctity of East Asia through the promotion of these ideals in another part of the world. Wasn’t that clear?

          • My ethnic homeland has been under assault and oppressed for centuries because of perceived ingrained notions of Western and East Asian supremacy. Challenging western racism (an extension of neocolonialism) doesn’t undermine your East Asian superiority complex.

        • Anne

          I read this until you disparagingly referred to south asians. rest assured us south asians aren’t the only ones who internalize western ideologies and your generalizing is offensive. bye.

    • g g


      Cloud Atlas is not exaggerated outrage. There was an imbalance with makeup and unfair representation (as usual). The non asian men as asian men makeup was so terribly done that it’s laughable but the non whites as whites looked believable. Also, why is it ok to allow non asian as asian but not ok for non blacks as blacks?? Besides the terrible makeup, there was a storyline involving neo Seoul with non asians as asians speaking with fake korean accents…as usual, the filmmakers and studio alienated for fear of box office tickets…

      And about this play, I can see why most of the cast is white because of the demographics, however, why even do a play so realistic and at high cost with the production value but can’t go all the way with the casting? Really? If this was a high school play or even a college play, I find that as flattery. And also… just think about this for a second, since the play is east asian, wouldn’t you think the people who are going to see it would be someone who appreciates east asian culture and it’s people just like people who mostly like going to see horror films, or romantic comedies?? My girlfriend forces me to see romantic comedies with her lol, I don’t get into it at all but she does. RSC seems pretty ignorant, people aren’t going to care if they’re asian actors.

  • People of Chinese descent are only about 0.4% of the population of the U.K. To suggest that the cast reflecting the demographics of the country is somehow “racist” is beyond silly.

  • Raiden

    the London Stage company is doing the same thing they did. for the orphan of Zhao for the Stage adaptation of ‘Princess Mononoke’ coming to the Us in about a years time. Basically, all the main characters being white actors, and everyone else being Non-white. Personally, I’m outraged.

    But, again, at the same time. Theater is different from Live action Film . In live action film, we have to believe the characters are real, and to cast anyone else but a POC in a role taking place in another culture makes little sense and breaks the suspension of disbelief.

    But theater already requires a suspension of disbelief to believe the story is happening on the stage, so the directors can cast anyone regardless of race or gender, and the audience will not complain because they’ve already suspended their disbelief.

    It’s not right. but what can we do about it?

  • Phil

    While I despise the inequality in western media in general – especially the blatant and unrelenting portrayal of minorities as villains, comic-relief and side-kicks in Hollywood, I will concede that it’s unreasonable to expect the Royal Shakespeare Company to cast British east asian actors in major roles when there are more talented actors to choose from. The reason being that British east asians make up only half a percent of the population(i’m deliberately not including the droves of young students from China currently enrolled in universities), very few of these are in acting and so the pool to choose from is exceptionally small. The parts should go to who is most qualified.

    Of course, British east asians do face a whole slew of genuine problems living in Britain but that’s another can of worms…