With our industry facing the very real prospect of decimation, British East and South East Asian theatre workers also have to contend with a rising and terrifying tide of racial violence in their daily lives.
March 15, 2020 happened to be the last day of a show I was performing in at the Vaults in south London. Two members of our company told me they had been racially abused three days in a row as they made their way to the theatre. They were among the first to wear masks in London at that point and their appearances had elicited hostile receptions linked to Covid-19.
The Huffington Post reported recently that race hate crimes against East and South East Asian people have quadrupled in the wake of coronovirus. Dr Yinxuan Huang, a sociology researcher at the University of Manchester, suggested the real figures are likely to be far higher as most of the cases go unreported.
As a group, it often feels that British East and South East Asian people are locked out of the diversity conversation altogether – our presence tolerated at best and erased at worst. Often unseen, though if allowed to be seen, then not heard. We are never fully there. Just a ghostly presence…
Now we ﬁnd ourselves blame ﬁgures as coronavirus is racialised through a constant feed of media images of East Asian-looking people on news reports in connection with coronavirus; George Osborne tweeting his newspaper’s cartoon of a face mask-wearing Chinese New Year rat; Allison Pearson tweeting: “After this, let ‘Made in China’ be a badge of shame. #Coronovirus”, and Donald Trump referring to Covid-19 as “The Chinese virus” being the most obvious examples.
So much of what we see on our stages and screens fails to reﬂect the diversity in British East and South East Asian communities. Our only screen representations on major UK broadcast platforms in recent years – One Child, Strangers, Chimerica, Giri/Haji – almost exclusively revolve around monolithic ‘foreignness’, a generic Chinese or Japanese presence in Asian contexts – in a word ‘Othered’.
There is very little of our diversity, our humanity, our presence as indigenous British people. We are literally ethnic ciphers.
This is where our theatre can play a crucial role. If we are unseen and unheard, we fail to register as anything but blank, dehumanised ciphers rendering us all too easily as targets for racism.
If, post Covid-19, theatre is to help mend the fractured state we currently occupy and help birth a more equal and enlightened industry that holds a mirror to society, theatremakers must boldly challenge racism and the structural barriers to actors and creatives of colour.
#WeRNotVirus was conceived with this in mind – a two-day digital theatre event in association with Omnibus Theatre – featuring 10 pieces of new writing to be performed by British East and South East Asian performers from diverse disciplines, including actors, dancers, singers and animators and all supported by Arts Council England’s Emergency Funds. Because we simply cannot be silent in the face of racism in any of its forms.
#WeRNotVirus will take place on June 13 and 14. More details can be found here.