Tuesday, 20 December 2016

A response to The Print Room fiasco from a UK theatregoer of Chinese descent

This is the blog post which alerted me to the practice of yellowface by UK-based The Print Room, and here is The Print Room's response after being accused of practising yellowface:

In the Depths of Dead Love is a very simple fable; it is not a play that tells a Chinese story, it is not about Chinese society, culture or perspectives. If it were, the casting would be very different, naturally.

Whilst the characters have been given Chinese names, that is to reference the abstract and the folkloric idea of the universal; we could just as easily be in the metaphorical area of Hans Christian Anderson, or, alternatively, the land of the Brothers Grimm.

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.

This dark comedy was first presented by BBC Radio 3 in 2013, supervised by Howard Barker, starring Richard E Grant and Francesca Annis, to great acclaim.

We acknowledge that some publicity materials seem to have permitted the possibility of a misapprehension arising. Print Room remains committed to diversity and inclusiveness in all we do, as our history shows.”

It's traditional in the UK for the very youngest to pretend to be Jewish, Arab, trees, stars, sheep and grass, for adult men to pretend to be women, and for adult women to be little boys at least once a year, and I've seen friends, neighbours and colleagues dress up as all sorts, even fish, for fun. After all, Shakespeare set lots of his plays in lands far, far away from the British Isles, and peopled those plays with characters who originated from those lands, and in his day, there was nothing wrong with men pretending to be women on stage, or for Englishmen to be people of other races and nationalities, all in the name of art. 

But where do fun and art end, and where does racism begin? Why did I, as a UK theatregoer of Chinese descent, feel so riled up about what I had read about The Print Room's production (I will not even mention it!) that I was moved to tweet 20 times in one day?

The Print Room fiasco isn't just about white people acting as 'pretend Chinese people' in a play. This is different. Here we have an instance where someone who has been posited as one of the top playwrights in the UK, someone who is seen as intelligent, an intellectual, creative, imaginative, has spawned 'pretend Chinese people' onto which he has grafted prejudices and bias, and then said nothing when Caucasian actors were cast as those 'pretend Chinese people'. In this same instance, what is even worse is that an institution, The Print Room, has given its blessing to these actions.

'Pretend Chinese people' indeed. You see, to quote The Print Room, 'the characters have been given Chinese names', yet we get 'Lady Hasi' - young, good-looking, suicidal - and oh, doesn't 'Hasi' sound like 'hussy' in Received Pronunciation (which is what most of London's theatreland speaks), plus an oh-so-subtle 'chink' who will do anything for money called 'Chin', who charges money from people to commit suicide in his bottomless well.   


Seriously, telling someone with a Chinese heritage like me that bottomless wells are for suicides is like me telling Anglophones that what lies in the wardrobe isn't Narnia, but death and hellfire and brimstone.

What The Print Room has showcased are not people, or even characters. Put the names, character descriptions, decision to intentionally cast Caucasian actors, and insistence that the work in question is an 'English' play which just so happens to be set in ancient China, together, in this age of the internet where knowledge can be gleaned in seconds, and what is brought to life aren't three-dimensional 'pretend Chinese people', but mean-spirited, sneering, mocking caricatures just like, to be crude and rude, 'darky Sambo who lives in his grass and mud hut in Bongo-Bongo Land and asks "how high?" when Massa say "Jump!"' for black people, and Shakespeare's Shylock for Jewish people. 

Aladdin, on the other hand, can be described as 'the story of a poor boy who finds magic which helps him get a kingdom and a princess. It just so happens that he is Chinese because the story is set in China and Chinese people live in China.' That is the difference.

I've always told everyone I know that the UK isn't a racist country, and while it isn't Utopia, it isn't as bad as elsewhere. Dressing up as Michael Jackson for fun whilst respecting his considerable talents, and dressing up as Michael Jackson to satirise/mock the way he sang and danced and looked, is not the same as dressing up as Michael Jackson to mock/bully him/black people in general because he was black and 'black people need to be put in their place'. If my white friends and colleagues and the people around me, including my family, 'the man on the street', can understand this and change their behaviour accordingly, I am at a loss to see how The Print Room missed this completely. The wallies at The Print Room have given white people a bad name, and seriously, I think I might have jumped to the wrong conclusion if it weren't for my white family, friends and colleagues.

What does this say about UK (or maybe London's) theatre and its ability to connect with the man on the street if there is such a dissonance? And what of the brightest creative and imaginative stars the UK has to offer...?

The UK is a country of many different races and faces. Perhaps UK theatre should start by showing this. 

Hmm, I'll stop now.

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