Print Room protest: In the Depths of Dead Love chronology

Why did East Asians, theatre practitioners, academics and friends protest against Yellowface casting in Howard Barker’s play, In the Depths of Dead Love, at the Print Room, 19th January 2017?

Thursday 19th January saw a peaceful protest of Chinese, East Asians, theatre practitioners, academics and friends at the Print Room in London where Howard Barker’s play, In the Depths of Dead Love, was performed by white actors in yellowface casting.

Despite being set in “ancient China”, all the Chinese-named characters are played by white actors, rendering us invisible, dehumanised and vulnerable at a time when anti-Chinese feeling is being whipped up by forces who want war with China. In a world rapidly lurching to the right. Barker does the work of the state in denying us our value as human beings.

If this looks familiar, it is. We went through this before when the Royal Shakespeare Company cast The Orphan of Zhao with East Asian actors in only four minor roles out of 17, and none in the main parts. The campaign gave birth to the British East Asian Artists who fought this battle and will continue to challenge all attempts to erase us from our own society and the arts we should all be enjoying fairly and equally on a level playing field.

Blackface has rightly been consigned to the depths of dead prejudice, but East Asians are considered defenceless fair game.

The Print Room, a hedge-fund-financed theatre in Notting Hill (Iraq War co-ordinating bank J P Morgan’s Bill Winters is the artistic director’s husband who helped fund the theatre), denied that the play was about China, spouting pseudo-intellectual drivel about it only being a metaphor, and that it’s actually an English play about English people; the not-so-sub-text being that no-one who looks like me can possibly be English even if born and raised here, absorbing the culture from birth and participating from first word, first picture, first dance, first song.

This disingenuous self-justification has generated widespread mockery.

“No offence was intended and none should be taken … In the Depths of Dead Love is not a Chinese play and the characters are not Chinese. The production references a setting in Ancient China and the characters’ names are Chinese. These are literary allusions in Howard Barker’s fable and never intended to be taken literally. The allusions are intended to signify “not here, not now, not in any actual real ‘where’ ” and the production, set, costumes and dialogue follow this cue of ‘no place’.” From the Print Room’s statement

So now I am a mere metaphor: an unreal person from an unreal place. Window dressing for an unutterably dull and pompous exercise in bourgeois angst. His characters lead such drab and tedious lives that perhaps the only way they have to render themselves interesting to themselves, each other  and the audience is to get togged up in chinoiserie drag. This would be the only acceptable explanation but somehow we doubt it. Instead, the paucity of Barker’s imagination has him reaching into strangers’ lives and ripping the guts out of us.

Like lungfish caught in a rock pool when the tide goes out, Barker, his theatre company The Wrestling School and the Print Room have been washed up in some 1950s version of how British society functions, who is in and who gets excluded. In its more than six years existence, we find that only eight out of 130 actors working at the Print Room have been Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME). And yet, curiously, they tick the diversity box when it comes to Arts Council funding for their projects. As Clarissa Widya of Papergang Theatre observes, “They are a charity supposed ‘to advance the arts for public benefit’. What does that say? Only willing to commit to diversity if someone else can pay for it?”

Howard Barker, our ‘greatest living playwright’ (according to some), made his reputation as a leftist, so his capitulation to reactionary racist practice is even more shocking. He professes contempt for “messages in plays” in a supine press when his message is very clear: black is white; to be English is to be white.

Greater self-love hath no man than this: that he throws what are commonly perceived as the weakest minorities under a bus for his career. If he has any character left I hope that in the wee small hours when there’s only him and his conscience, he will think hard and deep about perpetuating yellowface practice and let us know what he’s come up with.

Our Brutish intelligentsia have let standards slip somewhat in allowing such brazen BS to go unchallenged but, thankfully, we have plenty of properly sharp analysis keeping an eye on their game of erasure. Not only race but truth is becoming endangered in their ivory towers.

It is not only intellectual sleight of hand concerning race and purported artistic freedom that we need to check. There is a bigger argument to be had regarding the role of art and politics. The revelation that the Print Room is founded in part on JP Morgan’s Iraq War money raises more questions about who art serves — and be sure about this: it always serves someone. This author would not cross the threshold of an establishment with such a strong whiff of sulphur and hopes that others feel as strongly. For me, Anda and Bill Winters might as well have built the Print Room on an ancient native American burial ground.

There has been a flurry of activity and writing from people who care about our culture and our world, who see the arts as more than privileged rich whites raiding the ethnic dressing-up box for a bit of entertainment. From Facebook and Twitter to blogs and academics and the press, it’s not only East Asians who are horrified by this backwards step.

To borrow from Barker himself, “Howard, I have such a withering knowledge of your soul, its pitiful dimensions. It is smaller than an aspirin that fizzles in a glass. . .”

Here follows a chronology of the battle which some are calling The Orphan of Zhao II: This Time It’s Personal.

STOP ERASING US

THE PRINT ROOM ANNOUNCES FOR THEIR SPRING 2017 SEASON: IN THE DEPTHS OF DEAD LOVE by Howard Barker
Print Room at the Coronet presents a rare opportunity to see the World Premiere of a new play by “England’s greatest living dramatist.” (The Times)

Set in ancient China, In the Depths of Dead Love tells of a poet exiled from the Imperial Court & the favour of the Emperor, who scrapes a living by renting his peculiar property – a bottomless well – to aspiring suicides. Among these is a married couple who exert an appalling influence over him. Told through Barker’s celebrated exquisite language and affecting humour, In the Depths of Dead Love is the witty and poignant tale of a man facing an impossible dilemma.

Friday 16 December 2016
Actor Erin Quill 16.12.16: In the Depths of British Theatrical Racism @the_printroom

… Ah, a play set in CHINA! OF COURSE! WHY NOT? CHINA of course, had a ton of intrigue and politics, and is one of the oldest countries around from which to draw cultural inference, and stories about China should of course, be told.One problem. There is no one, NO ONE in this play on the stage, who happens to be of East Asian heritage. …

Saturday, 17 December 2016
Actor Lucy Sheen, a founding British East Asian Artists (BEAA) member, at We Are Resonate 17.12.2016: The 2017 play that shows Yellowface lives on

… The tragedy is the thinking that is involved surrounding works that are about other British ethnicities such as Black, African, Caribbean and South Asian; never, or seldom seems to be applied in any measure whatsoever, when it comes to works that involve East Asia or East Asian themes and characters. If as a society we can apply such thinking and progressive understanding to other British minorities, why can’t this equality of thought and action be extended to British East Asians? …

Sunday, 18 December 2016
Actor Daniel York, another BEAA founding member who has made much of the running in our yellowface protests, in The Play’s the Thing 18.12.2016: Scenes from a Yellowface Execution

… Yellowface has lingered on a lot longer, unfortunately. We did however think we’d finally laid the culturally appropriated beast to rest (on British stages at least) in 2012 when, after the Royal Shakespeare Company elected to cast only three (out of a cast of 17) East Asian actors in minor roles (including a dog and a maid) in the Chinese classic, The Orphan Of Zhao, a mass social media protest that went viral globally caused considerable embarrassment to both the RSC and the British theatre industry as a whole. Since then we have seen a whole slew of productions in major theatres: Chimerica, #AiWeiWei, The World Of Extreme Happiness, Yellowface, You For Me For You, P’yongyang, Shangrila, The Sugar-Coated Bullets Of The Bourgeoisie, all in major venues, achieving enormous success with casts of real-life East Asian actors, rather than Caucasians doing an “ethnic turn”. We will also shortly see Snow In Midsummer, at the RSC no less, and Chinglish at the Park Theatre. These are cast with actors who can actually trace their roots to Eastern Asia. …

Director Andrew Keates 18.12.16: letter to the Print Room’s artistic director

… It is no more acceptable today asking a Caucasian actor to play an East Asian role than asking another actor to play Othello by handing him a tin of boot polish. Simply put, it’s morally reprehensible. I ask you as Artistic Director to consider meeting with the creative team of In The Depths Of Dead Love immediately and ask them to reconsider this disgusting and bigoted casting or that you pull the production from your programme until they are able to satisfy its casting requirements without detriment to East Asian actors in London.

Lots of activity on Facebook as the news spreads: Protest Against Yellowface Casting at the Print Room

Monday, 19 December 2016
Actor David Lee Jones, Nee Hao magazine 19.12.16: Why is it not acceptable to cast white actors to play Chinese characters on stage or on screen?

… If you only ever get seen for one-line parts as “Chinese waiter” or “Chinese prostitute”, how can you possibly build a career? And how can you get the industry to see you seriously as more than that? Accordingly the core industry gets away with maintaining its low expectations of our potential. In the last couple of years we’ve seen maybe one or two East Asian faces regularly on British TV but it’s hardly blown wide open or fully escaped the “otherness” trap. … Ever since the “Orphan of Zhao” casting controversy in 2012, when the Royal Shakespeare Company was bombarded with passionate, strongly worded – and often witty – complaints regarding its racial insensitivity, the British East Asian artistic community has been finding its voice with increasing authority. Over the last three days the Print Room has faced a Twitter storm regarding its insulting, tone-deaf decisions and, incredibly, has yet to respond. …

Howard Sherman, The Stage 19.12.16: Yellowface is wrong and the Print Room’s explanation is meaningless

… 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. … 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. … 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.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016
Dr Amanda Rogers 20.12.16: Yellowface alive and well at the Print Room

… The casting of Howard Barker’s play In the Depths of Dead Love highlights something that has occasionally crossed my mind as more and more high-profile names lend their voices to the diversity cause: to what degree is it all lip service? Now, I know I am relentlessly cynical, and indeed, there have been many many positive strides made in the last few years, but the casting of this production gives me pause. … yellowface is a historic practice whereby those stereotypes were also explicitly designed by Hollywood to allow white actors to play any role, to explicitly exclude East Asian actors, to deny them opportunities. Over time, as the stereotypes and the dress-ups begin to diminish, that legacy of exclusion remains. So when anyone casts a white actor in an East Asian role, it denies East Asian actors a link to their culture and heritage, it erases their presence, it denies the demand for equal opportunities and diversity to be a live and vital force. …

The Stage 20.12.16: Equity adds voice to condemnation of Print Room ‘yellowface’ casting

… Equity general secretary Christine Payne also criticised the theatre’s response of accusations against it, adding: “The Print Room’s statement is completely unacceptable on a number of levels, not least of which is the suggestion that an ‘English’ play must be completely white.”

Wednesday, 21 December 2016
The Print Room statement 21.12.17:

We are truly sorry for any offence caused by the announcement of our cast for Howard Barker’s remarkable play In the Depths of Dead Love. We can see how it has led to concerns and misapprehensions. No offence was intended and, as we explain below, none should be taken. …

What’s On Stage 21.12.16: The Print Room apologises for ‘any offence caused’ in yellowface dispute (but only makes it worse)

… Arts writer Howard Sherman weighed in on the debate in an article in The Stage, saying: “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.”…

Thursday, 22 December 2017
Actor Katie Leung‘s tweets picked up by The Scottish Sun: CHINESE CRISIS Harry Potter star Katie Leung hits out at Howard Barker play for snubbing Chinese actors

Friday, 30 December 2016
Playwright Jingan Young, South China Morning Post 30.12.16: London storm turns spotlight on ‘whitewashing’ in film and theatre

Jingan Young says the practice of casting Caucasian actors in East Asian roles and criticism of it go back a long way, but recent events prove ‘yellowface’ is far from history

Monday, 2 January 2017
Lyn Gardner, the Guardian 02.01.17: Theatre is coming to terms with its diversity problem. Real progress is vital

… you can still see what looks like thoughtlessness and unconscious racism behind casting decisions, sometimes defended through talk of artistic freedom. …

Laura Kressly‘s Open Letter to the Print Room, The Play’s the Thing 02.01.17: Editorial — An Open Letter to the Print Room

… The great thing about ignorance is that it can be diminished by acknowledging and correcting past mistakes or habits – rather like a New Year’s resolution. Resolving the racism of your casting choice is simple – apologise, then make a change. Recasting or cancelling the production is the correct response to dealing with the mistake you made and indicates a desire to learn and grow on your part. Not doing so betrays a lack of understanding of your own white privilege. …

Wednesday, 4 January 2017
James Waygood at Grumpy Gay Critic 04.01.17: Yellowface and ‘In The Depths of Dead Love’. What Next? An Action Plan For Diverse Theatre Casting.

The Print Room’s casting for In the Depths of Dead Love is a disgrace, and we’re certainly angry. But how can we move towards genuine change?

Thursday, 5 January 2017
Theatre director Andrew Keates issues press release announcing a Stop Yellowface protest at the Print Room on the 19th January Press Night. Text on Facebook.

Friday, 13 January 2017
Belligerence from the Print Room in The Stage 13.01.17: ‘Social media attack will not force a change in our artistic policy’

The Stage 13.01.17: Print Room “artistic” director describes our protestations as a “social media attack” proving Mrs Hedge Fund couldn’t give a flying one.

Lucy Sheen at Thoughts from a London actor 13.01.17: The Print Room Protest: It’s All a Big Misunderstanding (or Two Can Play This Game)

… This is a difficult issue for us and we will take any responsibility for mistakes we make – we always have more to learn. But I’m basically saying, we didn’t make any, so ha.

Saturday, 14 January 2017
Actor Vera Chok 14.01.16: More thoughts on the Print Room

… It remains problematic to me that they and the playwright, Howard Barker, are happy to appropriate China and Chinese signifiers as part of making their fantasy and dismiss our objections, and they reject our objections in a manner that is rather superior (IF we knew the work of Barker. IF we understood an artist’s prerogative). … What is the “material damage” of doing this? It negates the reality of live people who, along owning some wonderful culture and history, have also been historically oppressed. It reinforces the idea that Chinese and yellow folk can be treated any which way and that it doesn’t matter. This results in the East Asian population in the UK, the third largest ethnic minority group (1.2m) after Black British (1.9m) in media, on the street, being mistreated and ignored. Police don’t pay attention to race crime against East Asians. If the perception is that yellow folk are psychologically robust, can take appropriation, bullying, if we believe that cold, money-savvy, aggressive China is going to take over the world and so a few knocks about on the street, at takeaways, on stage, won’t harm “the Chinese”, we are misunderstanding humanism. …

Sunday, 15 January 2017
Daniel York‘s Facebook postscript republished at Madam Miaow Says 15.01.17: Scenes from a Yellowface Execution: Daniel York on Howard Barker’s In the Depths of Dead Love at the Print Room

I actually sat down and read In The Depths of Dead Love last night.‬ If anything I’m even more angry now.‬ The argument put forth by the Print Room is that, although the play is set in Ancient China and the characters have Chinese names, the characters are not “Chinese” and it’s a very “English story”.‬ … ‪And this is what is utterly despicable about the whole argument, had so many times in the past and, I hope, not too many in the future: the sheer racial and social snobbery embodied by organisations like the Print Room and the Wrestling School when they assert that they cast “the best actors for the role”. What they’re actually saying is “you little ethnics just aren’t up to the job”.‬ …

Monday, 16 January 2017
Yellowface row on Front Row, BBC Radio 4 16.01.16

Wealth brings power, the power to open a theatre in London’s Notting Hill, the power to define human beings as worthy or not of inclusion, of defining whether or not we are English. Rich white women in need of a hobby get to do that to us because they are married to bankers, specifically, senior bankers in JP Morgan during the Iraq War era of wealth extraction and paying Tony Blair £2-3 million pa.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017
After many requests for engagement with the issues, the Print Room finally issues a blundering hostile statement on 18.01.17 which only makes things worse: The Print Room rejects claims of racial discrimination or “yellow-face” in its production of Howard Barker’s ‘In the Depths of Dead Love’

… The Print Room has asked Equity to meet to discuss this issue for close to a month. It is our opinion that Equity has misrepresented and misquoted our public statement. We only today received dates Ms Christine Payne, General Secretary, was prepared to meet with us. We are not hiding from this issue.

Andrzej Lukowski, Time Out 18.01.17: There’s going to be an anti-racism protest tomorrow over a fringe play in Notting Hill

… And so here we are: what should have been a fairly low-key fringe play has now accumulated reams of (fairly negative) press, plus an actual full blown protest. It would be nice to think somebody, somewhere, will learn something, but we shall see. …

FACE BOOK THREAD: Protest against yellowface at The Print Room

An Open Letter to the Print Room from Rage Offstage 18.01.17: The Yellowface is Bad Enough, now we have the whitewash

… Remember this is meant to be an apology. Instead, you seem to be suggesting that it is OK because the ‘Chinese’-ness is not real. It is just a theatrical device. Yes, this is a common technique, but it is essentially racist. It is the use of other races and cultures to signify the ‘other’, to conjure up an exoticism of the unknown. It is cultural appropriation and stereotyping. Our advice? When you are in a hole, stop digging. This is the 21st century.

THE DAY OF THE PROTEST
Benedict Wong and Gemma Chan at the protest

Thursday, 19 January 2017
Actor Benedict Wong issues a Spotify song list for the protest, including Give East A Chance: #theprintroomsyellowface

Cohan Chew at We Are Resonate 19.01.17: ‘Yellowface’ protest against the Print Room for casting white actors in Chinese roles to be held today

Alice Jones fast off the block in the Independent iNews 19.01.17: Howard Barker and the curious case of the Chinese play with the all-white cast

… “It is, in fact a very ‘English’ play and is derived from thoroughly English mores and simply references the mythic and the ancient. It has therefore been cast accordingly.” Ah, I see, English roles for English people because all English people are white. What a bone-headed thing to write in 2017, when the British theatre has a large pool of East Asian talent to draw on. Just look at the cast of the brilliant, 2013 smash-hit Chimerica. As Harry Potter actress Katie Leung put it “We are here. We exist.”

Evening Standard 19.01.17: Notting Hill theatre faces ‘yellowface’ protest for casting white actors in Chinese roles

Let’s hope Print Room “artistic director” Anda Winters never joins the diplomatic corps. The Stage 19.01.17: Print Room turns on Equity in ‘yellowface’ casting row

Equity responds to Print Room criticism 19.01.17

Equity is disappointed that the Print Room has chosen to issue a statement attacking the union ahead of talks to discuss the issues raised by the In the Depths of Dead Love production. The Print Room should be focusing on the genuine anger of performers and audiences surrounding its casting decisions, not the fine details of a meeting that is currently being arranged. Equity remains committed to having a professional, constructive dialogue with the Print Room. Our members are very keen to hear the outcome of these talks. Read our response to the Print Room’s initial statement.

Mingyu Lin on Facebook: BAME creatives in the UK are severely underrepresented

… in many ways I believe people don’t even realise that their casting choice is underlaid by a racial bias …

Friday, 20 January 2017
Cohan Chew at We Are Resonate 20.01.17: British east Asian celebrities joined around 120 people at last night’s ‘yellowface’ protest against The Print Room’s production of In The Depths of Dead Love

… Keates described east Asians as an “amazing community” with “extraordinary talent”. The theatre producer, who is currently working on his new project, Chinglish, slammed the Print Room’s response. “The Print Room’s responses have been a joke. I don’t know who runs their PR department but it’s almost like receiving letters from an 8-year-old. Every single time I see a response, it makes me more and more angry. … Looking forward, Keates hopes this is “the last fucking production of caucasians playing roles that can very easily be played by east Asians” and suggests that the Print Room “shut [the production] down and reevaluate what they think of diversity”. …

Pic of Gemma Chan from We Are Resonate

Two stars from Mersa Auda in The Up Coming 20.01.17: In the Depths of Dead Love at the Print Room at the Coronet

… Admittedly, there are some interesting concepts and a few moments that engage the audience, but there is no doubt that the most memorable and relevant aspect of the play is the controversy it caused rather than its content or delivery.

A complete non sequitur and strawman argument in The Daily Telegraph 20.01.17. Who has demanded that the play shouldn’t exist? No-one.: Play at centre of ‘yellowface’ row is insubstantial, not inexcusable – In the Depths of Dead Love review

Sam Marlowe in The Times gives it two stars 20.01.17: The controversial Howard Barker play is far from worthless, but keeps its audience at a chilly distance

Controversy over Howard Barker’s new play kicked off before this production even opened — so much so, that it almost gave a whole new meaning to Barker’s term for his own work, Theatre of Catastrophe. Broadcast on BBC radio in 2013, it’s set in ancient China; Gerrard McArthur’s stage premiere features an all-white cast. This has drawn furious condemnation and justifiably so: while the piece is broadly allegorical, it does lazily appropriate a vague Eastern exoticism as a means of denoting otherness. …

Mark Lawson, however, earns his keep by insulating the elite from society. In his uncritical interview with “Britain’s greatest living playwright” he fails to pursue interesting threads such as why is Howard Barker taking Iraq War JP Morgan money? Why does Barker express such contempt for messages when his own is clear — white domination excluding East Asians such as myself from our own English heritage is somehow artistically heroic. Guardian 20.01.17: Howard Barker: ‘I have contempt for messages in plays. I’m not trying to influence anyone’

The Stage 20.01.17: Howard Barker defends Print Room casting from ‘yellowface’ criticisms

“The ‘Chinese’ nature of the play is within the setting, which is entirely artificial, and the naming of the characters. It’s entirely European in its sensibilities. I’ve only very rarely ever set a play in my own culture – there’s always a distancing effect,” he said. And added: “You have to understand metaphors. The theatre isn’t a place for literalness. We have to accept that anyone from any place or culture can play any role,” he said in an interview in which he went on to claim he had “contempt” for plays that have messages. “Look, the reason I’m a writer is that I don’t involved myself in political and ideological issues. I’m the opposite of writers who enter the theatre to persuade people of their attitudes. It’s not what I do,” he said. In the interview, Barker also criticised Arts Council England, labelling it “preposterous” and something that belongs “in the Soviet era”. “It’s not really interested in art, it’s interested in sociological benefits,” he added….

Daniel York on finding himself in a Pete and Dud sketch in The Stage 20.01.17: The night I was spat at for protesting ‘yellowface’

… 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***!”. …

Some of the assumptions being made reveal unconscious prejudices that we are somehow incomplete Xeroxs of human beings and unable to engage fully and intelligently with the issues. Kate Maltby writes in the New Statesman that none of us have read or seen the play whereas I’ve read it, Daniel York has read it, Dr Amanda Rogers and a slew of others have read it and we’ve all been discussing it; plus Brian Law and a clutch of others saw it prior to and on press night. I was told that Maltby has now corrected this claim but it still reads, “The righteousness of thesps on the war path is often blinkered: perhaps the protestors outside the Print Room last night would do well to see the play in order to engage with it fully.” Sigh! And in a blizzard of links, none point to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Orphan of Zhao protest that was the direct ground-breaking precursor in 2012. I wouldn’t go calling us a “model” protest, either. But we shouldn’t let that detract from the article’s revelation that, in best Charles Foster Kane tradition, Anda and Bill Winters starred their daughter in the “atrocious” The Tempest. Iraq War money and nepotism — poor kid. 20.01.17: The Print Room’s “Yellowface” scandal reveals deeper problems with British theatre


Film by Paul Wu

Saturday, 21 January 2017
Even the Daily Mail senses something is up 21.01.17: Humans star Gemma Chan joins ‘yellowface’ protest outside premiere of play where WHITE actors were cast in CHINESE roles

Monday, 23 January 2017
James Waygood‘s protest report at Grumpy Gay Critic 23.01.17: I joined 200 people on Thursday 19 January for #StopYellowFace: a protest against the racist casting of In the Depths of Dead Love at the Print Room.

Corrie Tan‘s brilliant review dissects Barker’s pretensions with forensic elegance in Exeunt Magazine 23.01.17 We can only hope that Howard Barker notes what a properly rigorous intellectual endeavour looks like: The frog at the bottom of the well

… I would come to realise, much later on, that many readers who only understood English largely assumed that Chinese was a florid language because of these literal translations, when in fact it was the prolixity of English that made it so. Chinese idioms, for instance, can be incredibly evocative in four choice words, when it might take several sentences to explain them in English. In In the Depths of Dead Love, playwright Howard Barker’s characters speak exactly like these over-literal, wilfully exotic translations. … The forced poetry in every line often feels like a ridiculous parody of how a non-Chinese speaker might imagine a Chinese speaker would sound like if Chinese were English. And even if the all-white cast had been entirely Asian, the sting of this artifice would remain. … By setting a play in ancient China, Barker may argue that he’s employing a “distancing effect” by having “rarely ever set a play in my own culture”. The converse is also true, that by deliberately setting a piece in a specific place the audience is invited to bring to the production their cultural preconceptions and misconceptions of this location. … While the Print Room at the Coronet wrestled with accusations of yellowface in its casting of this play, I’d argue that the problems here go beyond the choice of actors. It’s the deliberate decision to frame the play with a certain culture in mind, then to rely on the audience’s stereotypes about this culture’s people and history in order to propel the plot forward, and then to insist that this culture is merely a metaphor because “the theatre isn’t a place for literalness”. …

Tuesday, 24 January 2017
Daniel York‘s summary of our Print Room protest at YOMYOMF 24.01.17: #StopYellowface in British theatre

… So, in other words, Chinese people are not “English” whilst white people evidently are and white actors get to be “universal” as well. The Print Room compounded this even further, as social media protest built, with another calamitously tone-deaf statement in which they actually told people they shouldn’t get offended and further elaborated on their concept that China is somehow not a real place. … The final straw was an email they sent to their “supporters”, leaked to us, when they complained of a “social media attack” by a “small number” of “members of the public….without consulting us”. The amount of blatant untruths in such a brief flow of words here is extraordinary but I’ll stick to the fact that myself, theatre director Andrew Keates and the actors’ union Equity had all attempted to contact them but to no avail. … Disagree all you like but at least do it from a place of engagement and knowledge not just because your posh white friends have told you to. The days of the subaltern model minority Asian surely have to be over. This is our country, our taxes, our spaces. We have just as much right to be there as any white person. Our love is not dead or in the depths. Our love is real #StopYellowface.

Richard Pope and Somi De Souza

Conscious Casting
on Twitter: @CastConscious

#StopYellowface

Papergang Theatre’s PHOTO ALBUM of the Print Room Protest. Photographer Alexander Newton.
Andrew Keates
Daniel York and Grumpy Gay Critic James Waygood
Benedict Wong leads the singing

FURTHER READING ON CROSS-RACIAL CASTING

Here’s a personal case study of East Asian erasure in Britain’s left politics from the far Left to the Labour Party: SWP sex implosion, politics, gender and race

Donna Dickens makes an idiot-proof argument at UPROXX: Casting minorities as white characters is not a double standard. Here’s why.

The Daily Dot: 7 reasons why reverse racism doesn’t exist

The Huffington Post: 4 ‘Reverse Racism’ Myths That Need To Stop