Daniel York: The night I was spat at for protesting ‘yellowface’
The late evening of January 19. There were angry people outside the Print Room theatre.
They’d just watched Howard Barker's play In the Depths of Dead Love and were then confronted by a placard-waving, singing, multicultural crowd of protestors who’d gathered in sub-zero temperatures to challenge the casting of play set in ancient China peopled by characters called Chin, Ghang, Mrs Hu and Hasi, cast entirely with white Caucasian actors.
One senior female theatre industry figure, wearing a rather impressive-looking fur coat, stormed across the street to berate the protestors as “racist”. The entire incident was captured on a camera phone though I must confess, even watching back now, I struggle to follow the thread of her somewhat surreal argument, but it appears to be something along the lines of “Equity has said it’s racist for Asian actors to play Asian roles”. I’m pretty sure Equity has said no such thing but does that mean we get the whole of Downton when they give in and make another series?
Another couple stormed by and yelled a bunch of expletives at us. I went after them to enquire whether they wanted to have a conversation. The man screamed at me “You’re a c***!” with rather more vehemence than one should ever show a complete stranger. I asked him why I was a “c***”. “Because you’re a c***!” I asked him why again. “Because you’re a c*** because I say you’re a c***, because you’re a c*** because I say you’re a c***. You’re a c***!”.
At this point I was starting to get the giggles at what resembled a more strident version of a famous Derek and Clive sketch (This Bloke Came Up to Me – it’s on YouTube) when the man who’d insisted I was c*** turned and spat. Not at me exactly, but down on to the pavement and in my direction with a look on his face that I can only describe as sheer contempt.
The gesture was clear. I spit on you. I spit on you for having the temerity to stand outside a theatre for six hours in the freezing cold to protest against the erasure of a minority ethnic group traditionally seen as quiet, insular, hard-working and obedient. I spit on you for wanting the theatre to be a more diverse space and not the preserve of a small, privileged elite. I spit on you for caring.
Of course this is not indicative of the majority of the Print Room audience, but it was an angry gesture, which is ironic because minorities who protest about injustice and unfairness are often deemed “angry”. I get told I’m “angry” all the time, but I’m not altogether sure what relevance my emotional state has with the issues being raised. I protest whitewashing ‘yellowface’ in the theatre because, on a rational and intellectual level, I can’t see how it equates to any kind of parity or fairness in modern multicultural theatre and because it erases and therefore dehumanises minorities.
Our street protest was not an “angry” one. There was laughter, inventive, witty placards and a real sense of camaraderie. How anyone can behold the star of Dr Strange, Benedict Wong, Kublai Khan himself, leading a mass singalong of All We Are Saying Is Give East a Chance and not grin ear to ear is quite beyond me.
Simon Callow writes wittily in his seminal book, Being an Actor, of how a gin and tonic at the interval can alter an audience’s temper for the better or worse. It appears here that Howard Barker’s self-styled “theatre of catastrophe” had had a somewhat negative effect on the mood of some of the audience members who’d rather sedately arrived a couple of hours previously for the performance. Some even took the information leaflets that explained the protest, though some turned their nose up in that classically haughty manner that I’m convinced keeps many people out of a theatre that we repeatedly maintain we need to cultivate and promote. It’s a strange, somewhat perverse mentality in my humble opinion.
The timing of the protest and the timing of the Print Room’s curious choices also comes at an ironic juncture. The last occasion I wrote for The Stage was in 2013, when I was rehearsing for The World of Extreme Happiness by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig at the National Theatre in the wake of a similar (though in some crucial ways different) casting controversy around the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The Orphan Of Zhao the previous year. And now the Print Room debacle arrives as I near the end of the second week of rehearsals at the RSC of another brilliantly brutal, but tender, play by Frances, Snow in Midsummer, with an entire cast of 13 East Asian actors. This opens in February, shortly followed by Andrew Keates’ production of David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish at the Park Theatre and Yellow Earth Theatre’s tour of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, with an all East Asian, mainly female, cast.
Prior to the RSC protest in 2012, it’s fair to say 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.
The RSC protest changed everything, though it wasn’t necessary for us to take to the streets back then. The RSC, to its immense credit, engaged on the issue and took positive steps to address this historic casting imbalance.
The Print Room, I’m afraid, has not been as responsive.
Instead, it has issued a number of confusing statements, one of which, that it cast the play the way it did because it’s a very “English” story, can only rank as downright offensive because: 1) this appears to imply East Asian people aren’t “English” and 2) exactly how “ethno-centric” would the characters have to be before it had even attempt to cast East Asian actors (because no attempt was made here)? Would the play actually have to be written in pidgin English? The Print Room asserted the “mythic” and “folkloric” nature of Barker’s play. But China is real. Chinese people are real.
I understand that now the Print Room is attacking Equity, in a row about diary co-ordination, for “misleading” people over its own statements This is also ironic as the Print Room has been repeatedly misleading, not least when it asserted that the protests were an “attack” by a “small number” of “members of the public”, when the protest has actually come from the theatre community. From well-known, working actors, award-winning writers and directors, as well as a whole number of academics.
Here’s a promise: if anyone wants to protest any of my plays, I will come out afterwards and talk to you and I hope we can find common ground and shake hands at the end of it.
And I hope that nobody gets called a “c***”.