Anna Chen – 18 January 2017
East Asians, theatre practitioners, academics and friends protest against Yellowface casting in Howard Barker play, In the Depths of Dead Love, at the Print Room 19th January 2017
This Thursday (19th January) sees 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, will be 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. 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.
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.
I’ll be compiling a chronology of this battle which some are calling The Orphan of Zhao II: This Time It’s Personal.
To paraphrase 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. . .”
For a one-stop archive of events click on PRINT ROOM IN THE DEPTHS OF DEAD LOVE PROTEST CHRONOLOGY
Lucy Sheen: The 2017 play that shows Yellowface lives on
Dr Amanda Rogers: Yellowface alive and well at the Print Room
Actor Erin Quill 16.01.17: In the Depths of British Theatrical Racism @the_printroom
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?
Actor Vera Chok 14.01.16: More thoughts on the Print Room
Brian Law on Facebook 18.01.17: So I went to see the play tonight …
Howard Sherman, The Stage: Yellowface is wrong and the Print Room’s explanation is meaningless
Lyn Gardner, the Guardian: Theatre is coming to terms with its diversity problem. Real progress is vital
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. These are our rulers in our post-truth new world.
Director Andrew Keates: 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.
Andrzej Lukowski, Time Out: There’s going to be an anti-racism protest tomorrow over a fringe play in Notting Hill
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.”
What’s On Stage 21.12.16: The Print Room apologises for ‘any offence caused’ in yellowface dispute (but only makes it worse)
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.
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?
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
Rage Offstage 18.01.17: The Yellowface is Bad Enough, now we have the whitewash
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 compete 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***!”. …
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
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 understand that Maltby has now corrected this claim.] 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
FURTHER READING ON CROSS-RACIAL CASTING
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