Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
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.
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…”
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.
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!
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.
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.