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Howard Sherman: Yellowface is wrong, and the Print Room’s explanation is meaningless

The Print Room at the Coronet. Photo: Marc Brenner The Print Room at the Coronet. Photo: Marc Brenner
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When the Print Room, a London theatre, cast white actors in Howard Barker’s In the Depths of Dead Love – a play set in ancient China, with characters named Chin and Mrs Hu – members of the BAME artist community took it as an insult, an assertion that there simply weren’t, in the mind of the company, the director and the playwright, sufficiently talented artists of Asian descent in London to embody these characters.

The theatre does not understand what yellowface means

With the release of a statement on Monday attempting to explain their process, the leadership of the Print Room hasn’t defended themselves by protesting that they had indeed attempted to cast the role with Asian actors. Rather, they denied that race and ethnicity mattered at all in casting. In doing so, the theatre showed that it does not comprehend what yellowface and racial erasure mean, and have made no effort to show any empathy to the community they have affronted.

Claiming that the play does not tell a Chinese story, the Print Room (one must speak of the institution, since the statement is unattributed) says the play “is not about Chinese society, culture or perspectives” and that “whilst the characters have been given Chinese names, that is to reference the abstract and the folkloric idea of the universal; we could just as easily be in the metaphorical area of Hans Christian Anderson, or, alternatively, the land of The Brothers Grimm.”

However, In the Depths of Dead Love is by a British playwright born in 1946 and writing in the 21st century, not the creator of stories written centuries ago at a time when knowledge of Asian culture was steeped in ignorance and caricature. Barker cannot claim to be WS Gilbert writing about England in The Mikado, despite its faux Japanese setting. Indeed, he is a historically and socially aware playwright. Saying the work is a fable is not a license to be culturally clueless.

Whether or not the Print Room production ultimately engages in full-on orientalism, with the actors slathered in yellowish makeup and sporting Chinese robes, speaking in some manner of accent or cadence meant to suggest that English is not their native language, they will be engaging in yellowface. That practice means pretending to be Asian or of Asian heritage when one simply is not, whether with the intent of honouring or slandering. One need not use make-up to be practicing yellowface, despite the association with the term and with the equally offensive practice of blackface. Regardless of the playing style and physical production, there will also be racial erasure, precisely because non-Asian actors will be playing ostensibly Asian roles, recalling all too easily the Royal Shakespeare Company’s casting debacle with The Orphan of Zhao.

The Print Room claims In the Depths of Dead Love is “a very English play”. Then why is it not set in England? If Barker was “simply referenc[ing] the mythic and the ancient,” why did he not choose a UK setting and British myths, or make up a world of his own? By citing a location and using particular ethnic names, Barker opted for specificity – and through specificity, countless artists have achieved the universal. If Barker was merely engaging in exoticism with his choices, then he has an opportunity to make adjustments before the play’s premiere, to remove the work’s endorsement of uninformed orientalism, the 2013 radio version notwithstanding.

According to its statement, “Print Room remains committed to diversity and inclusiveness in all we do,” but they have failed in that mission in their production of Barker’s play. Many theatres in the UK and US theatres have adopted such language to respond to evolving societal standards – and funding guidelines – without grappling with its deep ramifications. Incidents like this one make that evident.

The Print Room would do well to consult with Asian artists and indeed many BAME artists if they wish to remedy this situation, rather than forging forward with abstract, disingenuous excuses that fool no one who actually understands what diversity and inclusion genuinely mean.

Howard Sherman, US columnist for The Stage, is interim director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts and director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School College of Performing Arts

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