Yellowface back from the grave: the state of UK theatre – More Light

Anna Chen – Friday, 22 May 2009

Wow! Yellowface is alive and thriving in deepest Dalston with More Light at the Arcola Theatre, written by Bryony Lavery and directed by Catrina Lear.

Imagine, if you will, a return to ye olden days of the almost complete absence of actors of colour from TV, when white entertainers blacked up and sang songs about their dear old mammy and grinning piccaninnies chowed down on watermelon. The Arcola (the c is hard, not soft, in case you wondered) gives us a sort of menstrual minstrel show for 21st century theatregoers getting to grips with sexual politics, while race issues pass right over someone’s head.

Here we are, rendered invisible yet again in a story about, ha!, get this, the burial of Chinese women.

Set in the fabulous tomb of the First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, who has just died, seven concubines have been sealed in to continue their duties in the afterlife, but contrive to survive in what’s left of this one.

Foot-binding, beastly emperors who bury their womenfolk alive, and cannibalism are all delivered by a troupe of white gals in Japanese kimonos (presumably for added authenticity), yet not one single, solitary Asian actress is to be found in what looks like as anachronistic a piece of orientalism as you can find. What an all-white cast is doing yellowing up in multicultural E8 is beyond me. Not one black woman, no south Asian, no east Asian, no-one reflecting the mixed make-up of the area … are the theatre producers and commentators completely out of touch with the rest of us? Or couldn’t they find any ethnics who’d want to be in it?

Are minorities supposed to gaze in awe at white actors (mis)interpreting us and our history? Or aren’t we expected to participate in British cultural life?

I guess now that the Chinese are set to be the new superpower and a juicy new market presents itself, we’re going to be inundated by a tsunami of this sort of sensationalist titillation. Not for nothing did the Terracotta Warriors provide a whole new cultural seam to plunder.

The reviewers seem none the wiser.

The Guardian, which has masqueraded as enlightened and liberal for far too long, gives it four out of five stars and witters on about it being, “a meditation on different kinds of meat, a celebration of sisterhood and an examination of how art is valued in a dominant male culture.”

Not to this sister, it ain’t.

Times online’s lurid review reads: “Lavery’s response to this macabre tale imagines the fate of seven concubines and stirs the politics of sex and art into a rich stew whose shiver-inducing main ingredient is human flesh — the meat on which the women survive, first with revulsion, then with greedy enjoyment. It’s both mouth-watering and repellent.”

Ooh, I must go and see it, then.

The Times tries to adopt the lexicon of the oppressed but hilariously misses the big picture big time “… they are the victims of a highly refined form of objectification.”

Oh really. Join the bleedin’ club.

UPDATE: Sorry to spend any more time on this miserable throwback, but Time Out describes the actors as mincing around “on tippy toes like Barbie dolls”, I assume, to approximate bound feet. Hmm. Shame that footbinding only existed between the 10th and 20th centuries, over a millennium away from the 210 BCE date of the First Emperor’s death. But don’t let this fact put off the producers and whatever fantasy they have about Chinese and the lazy way they are determined to portray us here. Oh, I bet they relished the idea of a show that incorporated exotic sex and death and cannibalism, a right load of barbarian Other for a bunch of nice white girls to play.

How much contempt must you have for a people in order to get this so very wrong?

I’m amazed the Arts Council funded this crap when they are supposed to be promoting diversity.

UPDATE 2: There’s a bit of a ruckus going on at the Guardian over this.
What Wikipedia has to say about the phenomenon of Yellowface.

20 thoughts on “Yellowface back from the grave: the state of UK theatre – More Light”

  1. Our community assumes that things will automatically get better with time. So that if we just ignored racism in forms – insults, stereotyping, "art" forms like this, it would just go away eventually. Not true. The Civil Rights movement, centred around blacks, happened 40 years ago. Golliwogs, niggers, blackface and other insulting phrases and such were only made social taboo 10-20 years later. They are still suffering from cases at present day.

    So what hope do the Chinese have in comparison? Unlike the black community back then, they kicked up a huge fuss, constantly – they fought their little fights wherever injustice took place – at a bus, enrolling at school – and only now do MOST people maybe, kind of, see a black man as their leader. We just haven't reached that level of hard fought respect yet, in America, Britain or Europe.

    Until that happens, add another 20 years, plays like Yellowface and their carefree stereotyping will continue. Maybe the Chinese communities across the world can racially stereotype whites in art forms and such – there's plenty of material to work with – but I guess that's not in our nature.

  2. Mr D.: I was keying — very possibly incorrectly — on the Guardian's comment about "sisterhood." In this sense, the performance could be regarded as a gesture of contemporary white female solidarity with their sisters of the past. But keep in mind that all I am pointing out is a possible interpretation of an imaginary stateside production of a production I haven't seen!

    "if you will, a return to ye olden days of the almost complete absence of actors of colour from TV"

    No kidding. There's an episode of Bonanza where Dawn Wells of Gilligan's Island plays a persecuted Indian maid.

  3. Thanks, Babeuf.

    I wouldn't call for it to be scrapped but I do think there should be a debate around it to give it context. I'd like to see it unpacked: what does this play and this particular production say about us, our assumptions, and all those invisible subconscious stereotypes we think are natural and immutable?

    K, I think the use of yellowface points towards clueless. This is a shame because the Arcola enjoys a good reputation over issues of race.

  4. K
    When you say a gesture of solidarity.. what exactly do you mean?
    Is it the solidarity of the production company employing the same actors for many productions? Or what exactly?

  5. In the States, many aspects of the theatre are post-racial. This production might be ironic or a gesture of solidarity, depending on the company. Or, it might be clueless.

  6. I.:.S.:., (deliberately?) not getting it, said People like lurid sensationalist theatre. I would have a hard time believing this piece reinforced anyone's racist attitudes. And I don't think shouting racism at the drop of a penny does anything to reinforce non-racist attitudes. Goddamn PC culture.Are members of the audience going to come out of this play looking for some Chinese to beat up?

    No, I would say with confidence.

    Does this mean I agree with IS?

    Not in the least.

    The play is offensive and should be scrapped for two reasons.

    First the yellowface, which, as Splinty says, wouldn't be acceptable in the US any more thanks to the struggles of East Asian actors there. Have a look at the Black & White Minstrel Show clips on YouTube. That's considered a grotesque historical curiosity today. Adding a supposed feminist gloss to yellowface doesn't redeem it, as Madam Miaow has so deftly argued in the article.

    Second, because of the content of the play. What progressive cause can it possibly be enlisting us to? Are we supposed to leave the theatre determined to campaign for women's rights in Ancient China? The play is just adding to to the steady drip of anti-Chinese propaganda that says Chinese are cruel, robotic, have expressionless faces, and are a source of disease (all of this can be gleaned from the British media over the last decade, from coverage of the Olympics, Tibet, avian flu, etc.).

    Madam Miaow has pointed out the foot-binding anachronism in the play. Chinese are thus ahistorically cruel in the world of this play. You don't watch a documentary on the cruelty of Tudor monarchs and draw conclusions about timeless English cruelty, but that's what this play's doing for the Chinese.

    A fine article, Madam Miaow, and I hope you'll be able to pursue this further when the play's promoted to the National Theatre.

  7. Cheers, Harpy and Splinty. Having perused the reviews I now think we had a lucky escape. Personally, I'm pretty glad we didn't have anything to do with it.

  8. The Americans are a bit better on this. But then, they had Asian-Americans kicking up a stink on the issue 25 or 30 years ago. It took a bit of doing, but they got there in the end. There were plenty of East Asian actors around Hollywood, but when the studios said none of them had any profile… well, that just proved the point, didn't it?

    And so Britain is behind the times yet again.

  9. I:S
    But blacking up reinforces racist stereotypes and it is offensive. As MM says there are Chinese actors who could have done the job but no… white actors were brought in. What political message is that putting forward?

  10. IS, do you understand why blackface is no longer acceptable?

    Yellowface is the dominant white group defining Asians, portraying us as the "Other", and depriving good actors of work. There's a whole history to this. You can find out about it by reading more widely on the subject.

    Sorry you don't like my robust style. I don't do bland.

    Mr Divine: glad you do like a bit more muscle in your reading.

  11. People like lurid sensationalist theatre. I would have a hard time believing this piece reinforced anyone's racist attitudes. And I don't think shouting racism at the drop of a penny does anything to reinforce non-racist attitudes. Goddamn PC culture.

    Just sayin…

    Take care of yourself and yours…

  12. Hi I.S.

    "It's not a major production so absolutely they probably had a hard time finding seven actresses of far-eastern origin for it."

    There are loads of Chinese actors in this country and they'll have had no problem finding at least one to fit the bill. And it's major enough to have been reviewed in the mainstream press.

    There are around 400,000 Chinese people in this country and yet we are barely represented anywhere as if we don't exist. Lurid, sensationalist depictions just reinforce racist attitudes in that vacuum.

  13. Hum interesting.

    But do you really find this genuinely somehow offensive?

    It's not a major production so absolutely they probably had a hard time finding seven actresses of far-eastern origin for it.

    Weren't concubines and servants sealed in early period tombs? Wasn't foot-binding practised until the turn of last century?

    I don't understand the tone of outrage, that's all.

    Hope you're well whatever you're up to, and live long and prosper…

  14. Some people have already, and if in 2009 they need this stuff pointed out to them then they're not doing their job.

    " alas, it's not as if we're particularly visible :("

    And this helps?

  15. Hi H,

    It's a shame we don't yet a have a Chinese community that has reached a critical mass in size and confidence to counter these attitudes. It's going to take a major raising of awareness to challenge dimwit prejudices.

    The 1960s Civil Rights movement in the US was indeed an inspiration.

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