The “hideously white” nature of British theatre is under the spotlight again, due to a “yellowface” controversy currently boiling over in London. Andrew Keates, director of forthcoming play Chinglish at the Park Theatre, has written and publicised a letter to Anda Winters, Artistic Director at The Print Room, Notting Hill, challenging that theatre’s use of an all-Caucasian cast for a production of In The Depths of Dead Love, a play set in ancient China, with Chinese characters. Keates has shared his letter (read it here) on social media, and established a protest group on Facebook to campaign outside the theatre on opening night.
Keates’ own production sounds great – a relevant, contemporary comedy about the cultural tensions faced by an American businessman in China. He’s sought out East Asian actors for those parts, and rightly so. How else could the story realistically be told? Ethnic and cultural factors are presumably central to the plot and it would feel ridiculous to do otherwise.
For its play, though, the Print Room has made different choices. Perhaps the strength of In The Depths of Dead Love lies in aspects of the story to which the race of the characters is irrelevant. It is, according to The Stage, “a meditation on fate and language,” and is set in the historical period. A modern reading based on racial identity might not be applicable. Is it fundamentally *wrong* (rather than just culturally inaccurate, artistically poor or tediously Anglo-centric) for them to use white actors for a play set in China? The answer, if artistic freedom means anything, surely has to be “no”.
It is not racist per se to play someone from a different race. This is theatre. Anyone can play anyone, or else what is the point? Young can play old, blacks can play whites, gays can play straight, men can play women, or else you get… ‘I was outraged you chose a man to play the pivotal role of Widow Twankey. Another egregious example of sexist casting.’
We ask audiences to suspend disbelief in all sorts of ways. Race ought to be just one more. Many of the greatest stories ever told – Aladdin, Greek tragedies, the life of Jesus – would never have reached a British stage were we to demand strict fidelity to their racial origins. And this is not a privilege of white, Anglo-Saxon theatre either; theatre-makers of all races can cast off their ethnic chains, and expect audiences to go with them. After all, I managed to sit through an all Chinese production of A Streetcar Named Desire last Fringe without once thinking, ‘This is awful, all these characters should be white!’
Portraying someone who is not yourself is the very definition of acting. We should not be setting our boundaries by asking ‘is this allowed?’ or ‘is this accurate?’ but ‘is this any good, artistically?’ The argument against “blacking up” in modern theatre, for instance, is not made because the act of darkening one’s skin is in itself wrong, but because, given how culturally and historically loaded the use of blackface is in wider culture, it is very hard to see how it could ever be justified artistically. Hard, but not impossible. It just needs something as warped as The League of Gentlemen to create a context in which the blackface of a character like Papa Lazarou is acceptable. (To be clear, there is no suggestion that the actors of In The Depths of Dead Love are “yellowing up” for their parts.)
The real problem of course, which is at the heart of Keates’ objection, is the under-representation of East Asians and other minorities (my own hobby horses are the disabled and working class) on British stages. He is right – a Chinese play, set in China, with Chinese characters, would seem to be a perfect opportunity to cast some Chinese actors! Then again, isn’t any play the opportunity to cast some Chinese actors? Why get hung up on them playing Chinese roles? Someone do an all-Chinese Jeeves and Wooster, please. Put me down for a ticket now.
There are better ways to battle under-representation than demanding everyone stick to their own race. Trust in the art, and trust in the audience. All things being equal, a disabled actor playing a disabled character, a transgender actor playing a transgender role, and indeed, a Chinese actor playing a Chinese role, will give a better performance than a similarly skilled actor without that background. That will show itself on the stage, and eventually in the box office.
So let them have their all-white Chinese play. Let critics and audiences find them out, if the idea of it is so objectionable. But don’t rule out actors playing against their race, age, hair colour, gender or anything else, or you unwittingly diminish the possibilities of theatre, and put limits on imagination. One day you’ll end up with theatre which is an exact reproduction of real life, and who the hell wants that?