Race on stage

Race on stage: how theatre enables identities to be portrayed

A central focus of my research analyses the performance of race on stage: with how theatre enables identities to be portrayed, how it reinforces stereotypes, and how it allows such imagery to be subverted or reworked. I attend to these issues within so-called ‘ethnic specific’ theatres, that is, in those productions by racial-ethnic minorities themselves, as well as in mainstream arts and media. Recently, I have been particularly concerned with the representation of British East Asians and racial discrimination in the UK theatre industry, developing my work on performance by engaging in discussion with leading theatre companies and the national media to promote racial-ethnic equality.

British East Asians are the UK’s third largest racial-ethnic minority, the fastest growing, and yet the most invisible and persistently stereotyped in our cultural imagination. As a cultural geographer, my concern with race, representation and performance speaks to broader debates around how we deal with increasing diversity in our social world and the politics of difference. Recent statistics from the 2011 census reveal that only 45% of Londoners now classify themselves as ‘white British’, marking a significant shift in the racial-ethnic (and national) make up of our country. Such shifts create challenges for how multiculturalism, diversity and equality work in practice. Artistically speaking, tensions between life on the ‘street’ and representations on ‘stage’ are inevitable in a field where imagination and creative freedom reign supreme. This makes the arts one of the most contentious industries for thinking about how diversity is practiced, what diversity may look like and how equal opportunities are facilitated for those present in our everyday world but under-represented onstage.

The power relationships surrounding racial diversity are a key area in which I have recently been publicly active. My work in this regard has operated on two fronts: campaigning against stereotypical representations of British East Asians; and campaigning against the controversial practice of yellow face. Typically the latter involves white actors using make-up and prosthetics to appear East Asian (normally Chinese). Yellow face is especially problematic because white bodies control what it means to look, perform, be Asian. Although yellow face is epitomised by the stereotypical characters of Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu, from the 1950s onwards it was used to put white actors in non-stereotypical Asian roles. As a result, the practice symbolises not only the exclusion of East Asians from the mainstream but also their lack of power over self-representation. Awareness around the politics of yellow face is increasing in importance as mainstream theatres engage more with China. Although yellow face is popularly associated with make-up, much like the ‘blacking up’ of minstrel shows, it has come to describe how white actors play East Asian characters without any kind of ethnic pretence.

Race on stage 1After years of questioning the practices of various media broadcasters and theatre institutions, in September 2012 I worked with British East Asian artists and activists to lead an international protest against the casting practices at the Royal Shakespeare Company. In turn, this led to the formation of a lobbying group called British East Asian Artists (BEAA). The RSC cast a classic Chinese revenge tragedy, The Orphan of Zhao, with three British East Asian actors out of a potential seventeen roles. The production caused heated debate as despite the use of colour-blind casting, there were few British East Asians and their parts reinforced historical stereotypes of the Chinese as dogs and suicidal maids. Colour-blind casting aims to open up the range of actors seen for roles, such that race becomes invisible and talent will out. Yet British East Asian practitioners often lack the same track record as white actors because they have access to fewer opportunities, so even when colour-blind casting occurs, they are disadvantaged and can lose out. As a result, diversity policies and practices can reinforce the marginalisation of those they were designed to help. The protest sparked debate around the extent to which all theatre should be authentically cast, and raised problematic questions around how race is performed. After a number of weeks where BEAA mobilised East Asian minorities (and others) in the UK, the US, Canada, Australia and South East Asia, and worked with Arts Council England and Actors’ Equity (the acting union), the RSC recognised the problems with its casting. Although the production was not changed, the protest led to an industry-wide debate called Opening the Door held at the Young Vic theatre, which aimed to address the institutional marginalisation of British East Asians. The RSC – alongside many others, including the National Theatre, have also held British East Asian audition days to address the invisibility of this group from Britain’s multicultural imagination.

Since The Orphan of Zhao protests, I have chaired panels, talks, and Q&As on race and theatre, and been quoted in The Guardian in related popular debates (see here (1) and here (2)). I led the Q&A with the Tony-Award winning Asian American writer, David Henry Hwang, when his play Yellow Face was staged in London in the wake of The Orphan of Zhao controversy. The BEAA also organised a panel discussion entitled ‘What happens after Opening the Door?’ that I chaired and spoke at. This event was linked to the first full staging of a British East Asian authored play in over five years (The Fu Manchu Complex at the Ovalhouse, London, October 2013) and was filmed for broadcast by Propeller TV, the leading English language freeview channel for UK-China issues. I continue to lobby journalists and query critics who are often lazy in their assessment of racial politics on stage, and support the burgeoning British East Asian arts world. Since The Orphan of Zhao debacle, mainstream theatres have consistently cast British East Asians in East Asian roles in #aiww: The Arrest of Ai Wei Wei (Hampstead Theatre, 2013) Chimerica (Almeida and West End, 2013) and The World of Extreme Happiness (National Theatre, 2013), but this does not necessarily mean that racial politics are being addressed or that yellow face is in decline. At another public event linked to The Fu Manchu Complex addressing East Asian representation, Ashley Thorpe (Royal Holloway) and I suggested that some plays continue to portray contemporary China using Orientalist stereotypes, and highlighted that their ‘authentic’ casting reinforces the idea that British East Asians are indelibly foreign. We have yet to see progress in seeing British East Asians as British. Yellow face is still rampant in amateur and fringe productions, such as the recent Beijing Cake at the Edinburgh Festival (2013), pointing to the ingrained nature of popular imagery – and indeed of its continued power. Although in the last year, great strides have been made to address inequality and discrimination against British East Asians, there is still a long way to go. Through public speaking, lobbying and popular writing, I hope to work with British East Asians to raise public consciousness around race and move towards equality for all racial-ethnic minorities.

1. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/oct/22/royal-shakespeare-company-east-asians

2. http://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2013/may/31/british-theatre-depicting-race-stage