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Daniel York Loh: British East Asian theatre has come a long way in six years

Francis Mayli McCann and Kirsty Rider in The Great Wave at the National Theatre, London. Photo: Mark Douet Francis Mayli McCann and Kirsty Rider in The Great Wave at the National Theatre, London. Photo: Mark Douet
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When someone eventually writes the definitive history of British East Asian theatre, March 2018 will surely go down as a culmination of events that began with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Orphan of Zhao protest in 2012.

In the last month, no fewer than three British East Asian writers have plays in major theatres running concurrently – Francis Turnly’s The Great Wave at the National Theatre, Acceptance by Amy Ng at Hampstead and Mountains by In-Sook Chappell at Manchester’s Royal Exchange.

The fact all three were playing in what some might describe as ‘secondary spaces’ in those theatres is another conversation entirely, but it does highlight the mercurial progress of British East Asians in the theatre.

Just over 12 months ago we were stood in the freezing cold outside the Print Room protesting a Howard Barker play set in Ancient China that managed to feature an entire cast of what can only be defined as fairly mainstream Caucasian actors.

Daniel York: The night I was spat at for protesting ‘yellowface’

At the time, 13 East Asian actors were rehearsing in another huge production in a huge space: for Asian American writer Frances Yu Chu Cowhig’s Snow In Midsummer at the Royal Shakespeare Company, which was enthusiastically received. Yet still we were in the cold protesting what we view as an existential threat.

Before 2012, East Asians in British theatre were as rare as marsupials in the English countryside. Arts Council England and the wider industry were seemingly content to tick their East Asian box with Yellow Earth: at that time the very epitome of model-minority gatekeepers, a theatre company that appeared far more fixated on attempting to replicate Eastern movement disciplines than nurturing and platforming British East Asian writers.

British East Asians were effectively side-lined in debates on diversity in theatre. The general establishment view tends towards a binary black/white one or, at most, an earnest discussion on the need for more ‘black and Asian’ faces, which seems to exclude large swathes of the Asian continent.

It’s easy, and not unjustified, to denigrate the fact opportunity has historically failed to come our way. But we should be mindful of how much we ourselves have sometimes pandered to the white establishment’s view of us, a ‘safe’ version they’d prefer to engage with.

This week, a two-day conference exploring South East Asian and British East Asian theatre has been organised by Aurora Metro Books to coincide with the publication of its anthology of full-length British East Asian plays.

I hope we will have the opportunity to address these issues and celebrate our astonishing progress from having literally no East Asian writers, actors, directors and creative personnel on British stages to the relative abundance we have now.

The Sight/Unseen Drama Conference: Amplifying Voices of Southeast and British East Asian Theatre Playwrights takes place Thursday 26 April at Goldsmiths University of London and Friday 27 April at Tara Arts