The Yellowface Debate: Orphan of Zhao Roundtable and comments on Western Opera casting practices

Roundtable discussion: Interculturalism, universality and the right to representation in the RSC’s The Orphan of Zhao. Friday 23rd November, 3-5pm, Centre for Creative Collaboration, Acton Street, London.
Speakers: Dr. Broderick Chow, Brunel University, Dr. Amanda Rogers, Swansea University, Dr. Ashley Thorpe, University of Reading (chair), Daniel York, Actor, writer, director and Vice Chair of Equity Minority Ethnic Members Committee.*
(c) RSC

(c) RSC

Following on from my Orphan of Zhao post on ‘yellowface’ and colourblind casting, I attended the above roundtable last November hosted by the Asian Performing Arts Forum.  But, well, what with teaching, marking, looking after my young family, article writing, PhD and Christmas, I still haven’t written up my notes from it.  So, luckily for me, panellist Dr Amanda Rogers (University of Swansea) has done a sterling job at addressing the issues in a series of posts on her blog Theatrical Geographies, and Anna Chen/MadamMiaow recorded the whole event and put it on Youtube.  Thanking them both, I’m shamelessly reblogging! Click the link here:

Orphan of Zhao update and roundtable.

My own review of the production, and the aspects I found both most potent (there was much that was potent and beautiful) and most problematic (there was much that was problematic), will be coming soon.
After my initial post on The Orphan of Zhao, my friend Rosie Carlton-Willis commented on my post to let me know about the situation in the world of Western Opera, which, frankly, makes the RSC look like pioneers of diversity in comparison, and which also illustrates just how far this debate extends.  My students will also cite the sci-fi movie Cloud Altlas.  I’m copying part of Rosie’s comment here:

The weekend (15-16 December) was interesting. After some intense conversation on the use of blackface in opera, media responses to this phenomenon and related issues, I went to the cinema to see a production of Verdi’s ‘Aida’, beamed live from the Metropolitan Opera House, New York. Wonderful singing, but of course, in an opera which does not have a single white character, there was not a single black artist in a principal role, and the two Ethiopian characters, Aida and her father, were in dark makeup, to differentiate them from the Egyptian characters.

I looked on the Met’s website to see their casting for this season. In a season of 29 full scale opera productions (including an ‘Otello’ – yes, white tenor in blackface), there are maybe 5 people of colour named in principal roles on the website. One African American artist, one East Asian and a small handful who would maybe identify as Latino/Hispanic. Does this represent the balance of available talent? I doubt it.

I’ve tended to think that for achieving racial justice in the opera industry (some way to go yet…) so-called ‘colourblind casting’ would usually be the best option – casting solely on voice-type and ability, not necessarily relating the race of the character to the race of the performer. But this is not what I’m seeing at the Met this season: instead, what I’m seeing is an overwhelming bias towards hiring white performers in all roles. Is there one solution for the opera industry? Does a more just state of affairs involve hiring only black artists for ‘Aida’ and East Asian artists for ‘Madama Butterfly’ and ‘Turandot’ and by extension, only white artists for ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ and the ‘Ring Cycle’? That looks something like justice but seems restrictive to me, given that a dramatic tenor, say, may be equally well suited to Otello, Radames, Siegfried and other roles, and should not be restricted to a smaller number on account of race. But the current situation is outrageous. Is it time white artists started turning down roles like Aida? Singers and scholars, I’d welcome your thoughts. By Rosie Carlton-Willis

Carol Chillington Rutter’s chapter ‘Shadowing Cleopatra’ in her book Enter the Body: Representations of Women on the Shakespeare Stage challenges us to stop and think about the extent to which we accept without questioning traditional casting practices – and looks at the tendency of liberals to defend or justify these practices.

* Amanda mentions that none of the RSC team who were invited to the roundtable came, but for the record I would like to note that my friend Dr. Li Ruru was touring China at the time with a group of Leeds University student actors performing Cao Yu’s The Sun is Not for Us.  Ruru and I may take different positions on the casting of the RSC production, but she works tirelessly to promote Chinese theatre in British academia and beyond.
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Madam Miaow makes mincemeat of the RSC over non-Chinese casting

(c) RSC

I have to admit to feeling just a little bit sorry for Greg Doran, appointed new artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and actual director of its upcoming World Elsewhere season.  After all, who wants to be made into cat’s mincemeat by the magnificent Madam Miaow?  Madam Miaow, aka steampunk poet and Chinese cultural activist Anna Chen, is leading the campaign to ‘out’ Doran and the RSC as culturally insensitive (at best) or institutionally racist (at worst) after they cast predominantly non-Chinese as leading roles in the classical Chinese play The Orphan of Zhao, by Ji Junxiang (紀君祥). To add insult to injury, the poster only mentions the name of its adaptor, James Fenton.  Furthermore, the three Chinese cast members play ‘two dogs and a maid’… Admittedly, the maid is a fairly main part and the dogs are talented puppeteers, but in all the RSC’s research did they not realise the cultural significance of equating Chinese with dogs? So ok, the infamous ‘No dogs or Chinese’ sign over the gates of Huangpu Park in foreign controlled 1920s Shanghai may be an urban myth: what the notice actually stated was ‘no dogs or bicyles’ – oh yes, and that the park was for ‘foreigners’ only. But surely, in a series that also contains a German and a Russian classic, Brecht’s Life of Galileo and Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, the RSC could have stretched to a third of the cast being British East Asian, at least.  Madam Miao’s campaign has not only hit The Guardian, it is rapidly going global, now taken up by the AAPAC (Asian American Performers Action Coalition), who are calling for a US campaign to resist the RSC bringing ‘their practice of exclusion’ with them when they take two family productions, Matilda and the young people’s King Lear, to New York.

Spot the ‘ethnically ambiguous’ BEA. Yellow Academy Summer School, 2012 (c) Yellow Earth

Now, I have to confess that on one level my interest in this story is personal.  Not only did I live in China for five years, but my daughter, currently doing A-levels, is hoping to go to drama school.  One day she suddenly said, unprompted by anything I had said, ‘What’s the point of me doing drama? Even if I get into drama school, I’ll only ever get a chance to play waitresses or a Thai prostitute! I mean, you never see East Asians on telly – I could never do Shakespeare or a costume drama!’ My daughter is half South East Asian (Lao, not Thai, but most people don’t know the difference).  Alarmed by her defeatism, I passed on to her an advert for a youth drama summer school run by the BEA theatre troupe Yellow Earth.  She successfully auditioned and spent 2 weeks last summer at the Yellow Academy.  Out of the sixteen participants, she was the only one of non-Chinese descent.  Initially, she was a little disappointed by this: clearly she was marginalised within the marginalised, but then a casting director came to talk to this eager group of young wannabes.  This man was sympathetic to issues around casting faced by BEAs.  Unless there is a real cultural shift, their only likelihood of getting work is still by playing waiters.  Then he looked at my daughter: ‘You’re lucky though.  You’re ethnically ambiguous.  You could play any type of Asian.  In fact, I could even cast you as Romanian!’ Mmm, so her future holds being represented as a Thai prostitute or a trafficked Eastern European… Of course, things are changing.  A young actor at the China in Britain: Myths and Realities: Theatre/Performance and Music conference held at the University of Westminster earlier this year bitterly noted that BEAs could get major TV  roles – in SciFi.  Afterall, since Star Trek, there’s always been a geeky or a sexy (or a geeky, sexy) Chinese or Japanese in  any self respecting team of alien fighters.

At China in Britain, BEA theatre stalwarts, the actor David Yip (best known for his role as The Chinese Detective in the ’80s), actor/writer Lucy Sheen, and David Lee-Jones, who was recently the first BEA to play a Shakespearean king in the UK, pointed out that it was not only the fault of casting directors if they failed to cast Chinese actors.  They needed to have Chinese actors to cast.  If Chinese parents don’t value their children participating in the arts, then where is this new generation of Chinese actors going to come from, Yip asked.  Interestingly, both he and Lee-Jones are dual heritage and Sheen is adopted: as was the case with the majority of participants at the Yellow Academy. The change has to come from within the community, Yip argued, as it did in the Asian and Afro-Caribbean communities.  (For US readers, ‘Asian’ in the UK tends to refer to Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi, East Asian to Chinese and Japanese)

However, if our national theatres, arts funding bodies, and government (through funding said theatres and bodies) don’t actively participate in ensuring that all sectors of British society are represented on our stages and our screens, aren’t they indeed perpetuating the marginalisation of certain groups in the arts?  Yellow Academy has had its British Arts Council funding reduced so that now it only covers the teaching. As there was no funding for travel and accommodation, it’s not surprising that nearly all the participants came from the South East.

(c) RSC rehearsal photo for 'The Orphan of Zhao'Let’s get back to the RSC.  Why is it a problem that the cast of The Orphan of Zhao is predominantly non-Chinese? The RSC have been making efforts to be less, how shall I put it, white-washed. The current production of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Iqbal Khan and starring Meera Syal and Paul Bhattacharjee, is selling out in the West End.  Deborah Shaw was behind the World Shakespeare Festival, and she and her husband’s Iraqi Theatre Company’s Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad literally shook the RSC audiences out of their comfort zone last spring.  And Greg Doran’s civil partner, Anthony Sher, returned to his native South Africa, bringing back a multi-cultural production of The Tempest which was both a post-colonial critique and a cautious celebration of the new South Africa.  However, the RSC’s following argument is deeply problematic:

We intend to present The Orphan of Zhao in our own way, just as a theatre company in China might explore Shakespeare.  Having absorbed something of Chinese conventions and dramatic idioms, we want to approach the play with a diverse cast and develop our own ways of telling this ancient story and thus explore its universality. (Follow this thread on their facebook page, too)

Firstly, the phrase ‘our own way’ is (unintentionally, I believe) culturally imperialist. What do they mean by ‘our’? And who is the oppositional ‘their’? BEAs? Secondly, a Chinese company presenting Shakespeare’s characters as Chinese is about appropriation, and, until very recently, about subaltern appropriation: Caliban getting the island.  When Lin Zhaohua presented Hamlet as a contemporary urban Chinese youth back in late 1989, early 1990, he wasn’t aiming for ‘universality’, a concept which was exploded by cultural critics decades ago.  Nor was he bowing at the feet of a great Briton. He was rejecting a Soviet model that presented Shakespeare as depoliticized foreign theatre, and instead usurping Shakespeare’s tragedy for his own dissenting purposes (see Li Ruru, Shashabiya). Thirdly, although Doran’s cast is multicultural(ish), it’s still not enough precisely because Chinese and East Asians are so invisible in the British media and arts in the first place.

(c) RSC. Would this production be less controversial if they hadn’t gone for these beautiful ‘Chinois’ costumes?

I opened this piece by saying that I felt a little sorry for Greg Doran.  He’s not a racist – but he is blinkered, and he does have a tendency to say some very odd things (much to Madam Miaow and her readers’ delight).  A few years ago I challenged him about the lack of diversity in RSC casting during a Q&A at the British Shakespeare Association’s Global/Local Shakespeare conference, convened by Sonia Massai, who edited Worldwide Shakespeares.  He acknowledged that the RSC needed to be more inclusive, and this season is part of that acknowledgement.  He also said that he would never not cast anybody because of their race.  All roles are open to all actors whatever their ethnicity, so long as ‘it won’t confuse the audience. I wouldn’t cast different races within one family, for example.’ Pardon?! I pointed out that many people in the audience, including myself, came from families comprised of different races! ‘Oh, um…’ he began.

But do you know what, deep down I’m glad that Doran got it wrong, and that Madam Miaow noticed. Why? Because by the time my daughter graduates from drama school, if indeed that is what she decides to do, she might get to play Shakespeare’s queens, or Helena, or even her namesake, Imogen.

And I will try to catch all three productions in a World Elsewhere.