Protests about important cultural and political matters are essential in a democracy. No question. I have no doubt that many Asian actors and creatives felt aggrieved by how what had happened at the Print Room in relation to the production of In The Depths Of Dead Love had been discussed and reported in the mainstream press, the industry press and social media. I have no doubt that many Asian actors feel – and are – excluded unfairly from casting opportunities. They are right to want to address the wrongs they face and no Caucasian person has the right to tell them not to protest or how to protest. Equal opportunity for Asian actors should be a given; it should not require the unfair blackening of the names of actors and creatives to gain that equal opportunity.
On 19 January 2017, a “Yellowface” protest, as far as I can ascertain the only such protest of its type in London, at least in the last decade or so, was held in Notting Hill, where Howard Barker’s new play, In The Depths Of Dead Love, was having its world premiere at the Print Room.
It was a peaceful protest, but not a silent one. Attendees at opening night report that the protesters’ chanting and singing was audible inside the auditorium where four working actors were seeking to ply their professional trade. Many of the protesters were their fellows, actors and creatives who work or want to work in theatre in the U.K.
One of the songs reported as sung as part of the protest was a cheeky reversion of a well known political song : All We Are Saying Is Give East A Chance. It’s a perfectly reasonable and understandable sentiment: there is no occasion for Asian actors to be excluded from consideration for roles in theatre, film or television. None. A good actor can have skin of any colour.
But, given the number of other productions playing that night in London with all Caucasian casts, and the absence of “Yellowface” protests at any of the theatres where those productions played, logic dictates that the protest outside of the Print Room was for reasons other than addressing the lack of opportunity for Asian actors in British theatre.
If that were not the case, the protest outside the Print Room must be judged unfair. Why pick on one small, independent theatre in the suburbs when there was a veritable smorgasbord of platforms for protests about the exclusion of Asian actors from working opportunities?
So, then, what was the rationale for the “Yellowface” protest concerning In The Depths Of Dead Love?
As far as can be ascertained, the starting point was the Print Room’s inelegant announcement about the casting of the new Barker play premiering there. That announcement contained three pertinent facts:
(a) the play was set in Ancient China;
(b) the four characters were called Chin, Ghang, Hasi and Hu and
(c) the four characters were to be played by Caucasian actors.
Given the logical path so far followed, (c) should not be the issue, at least in isolation. The other points must have been the catalyst for complaint.
Letters were written. Posts were made on Facebook and other social media sites. Tweets were tweeted.
At that point, from what can be pieced together retrospectively by reference to published records, not many, if any, of those who sought to agitate an unfairness issue had actually read the text of Barker’s play.
It is worth pausing here to note that In The Depths Of Dead Love had an outing on BBC Radio in 2014 with an all Caucasian cast including Richard E Grant and Francesca Annis. I have been unable to uncover any trace of complaint or outrage about that casting. No “Yellowface” protests occurred when that production was announced or broadcast.
Interestingly, Jane Bertish played Mrs Hu in the BBC version and she was cast in the same role at the Print Room. That casting, unlike the BBC one, came to be the subject of condemnation and vehement opposition. Curious.
Some of those who were questioning the Print Room’s production were reminded about the BBC version and urged to read the Barker text. Perhaps they had made a completely understandable error? Because, they were told, even though the play mentions Ancient China as the setting, it doesn’t feature any Chinese characters or rely upon Chinese history, culture or experience for its plot, narrative or dramatic energy. Yes, the characters might bear names that could be considered Chinese, but that was just a device of the writer. This was not an example of Cultural erasure or of Cultural appropriation.
It is worth pausing again here: this time to consider the critical assessments following opening night.
In The Stage, Mark Shenton said “While it’s true there is nothing inherently Chinese in the play’s substance or characterisation, that only compounds the issue. Why not use ‘English’ names?”
In Time Out, Tim Bano said “the play (in the opinion of me, a white critic) is not inherently racist…But, and it’s a very big but, there is no fathomable reason why the characters have Chinese names, nor why it’s set in China”.
In The Telegraph, Dominic Cavendish thought “While people are absolutely right to bang the drum for diversity in theatre, I found it incredibly hard, actually watching the play, to feel a terrible outrage has been committed; the writing is so abstract, the scenario almost Beckett-like in its bleakness, the language so studied and artificial, that I struggled to see what would be added if the modern-dressed actors (James Clyde, Stella Gonet, William Chubb and Jane Bertish) had been replaced by actors of East Asian descent. Would that make the work more “authentic”? Impossible. To some extent this is no more Ancient China than the flimsy realm of a panto Aladdin…Art has to take risks, indulge in flights of fancy…I will defend its right to exist, in this form.”
In The Guardian, Lyn Gardner said the Print Room casting looked “more like a lack of genuine and thoughtful commitment to diversity” and suggested “more diversity might have brought a richness, depth and breath of fresh air”. These were thoughts Gardner had never bothered to air in relation to countless other all Caucasian casts on London stages. Caucasian whispers.
Holly Williams, for Whatsonstage, said “In fact, In the Depths of Dead Love seems to be neither very Chinese nor very English. A could-be-anywhere, abstract-fable really is the best description.”
To borrow and adapt a phrase from The Mikado, I have never known such critical unanimity on a point of theatre. No one who has seen the production seems to dispute that, despite the reference to a well in Ancient China (only in stage directions, not dialogue) and the names of the characters, the play is not inherently racist or inherently Chinese. That is certainly my view.
So, it is, then, objectively speaking, not an issue of Cultural erasure. Utilising Caucasian actors did not eradicate a Chinese sensibility from the text or the production. This was not a case of Asian roles being played by actors who were not Asian.
Opinions differ as to whether or not casting non-Caucasian actors might have added anything to the text or production. (Actually, casting Asian actors may have added issues of class and attitudes to suicide unintended by the author.) But, in truth, why is it ever necessary to add anything to what an author has penned? That is a completely different thought to colour blind casting, a principle which suggests that all who can act should be considered for any job, their skin colour notwithstanding.
Was the issue, then, Cultural appropriation? It never seemed to be formulated expressly that way by the protesters, but as Christopher Hurrell has pointed out on this site, it is a live issue. Should Barker have used the ancient China setting and used apparently Chinese names for the four characters?
The starting point for that discussion, surely, must be that nearly all theatre, is metaphorical, not literal. Plays might be set somewhere, but that does not make them of or about the setting.
Hamlet is set in long ago Denmark. Julius Caesar is set in Ancient Rome. A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum is set in Ancient Rome. Hedda Gabler is set in Norway. The Royal Hunt Of The Sun is set in long ago Spain and Peru. Amadeus is set in Austria. One could go on and on.
Those settings exist, they are not imaginary. They are not specific creations of their authors. Yet, neither are they real. Audiences understand that.
So, no one, at least as far as I know or can ascertain, suggests that, respectively, those plays should be cast with exclusively Danish, Italian, Norwegian, Spanish, Peruvian or Austrian actors. No one protests outside the theatre when they are not.
Because none of those plays turn on the setting. The author might have set each play in a particular time and place, real or imagined, but the play is universal. Its resonances are not constricted to the setting or the people who might have been found in the setting in the relevant time period.
In each case, nothing particular would be gained by casting on country of origin lines. Why is a danish actor more likely to be able to play Hamlet than an Asian actor? Or a Norwegian actor more likely to be able to play Hedda Gabler than an Asian actor?
The skin colour or birthplace of the actor is simply not relevant in most plays. There are exceptions, but they are few and far between. Of course, this is a point the Print Room protesters take as a given. Rightly.
Plays like Hamlet don’t involve anything inherently Danish. Shakespeare committed no act of Cultural appropriation in writing Hamlet. Nor Julius Caesar, where there is no issue with the use of Italian names, and no Cultural erasure.
The reason that colour blind casts can, and do, perform those works as a matter of course is that they are plays which do not turn on Cultural or ethnic significance. Anyone can play the parts in those plays, regardless of the setting, regardless of the names.
It’s the same with Henry V and, for that matter, The Importance Of Being Earnest. Such plays, thought of as “very English”, can be, should be, played by actors whose skin is not white. Many English people do not have white skins.
So, to hold firm to the allegation that the Print Room casting represented collusion in Barker’s alleged Cultural appropriation was baseless. Caucasian whispers.
This was even more so because Barker is a writer well known for techniques of distancing and metaphor. He is a fabulist. That is not by way of apology or dissembling rhetoric: it’s just a fact. Barker starts from an abstract point and extrapolates or elaborates. His characters are constructs not reflective of particular ethnicity or culture. That is his technique and, as an artist, surely, he is permitted that course?
To ignore that was to engage in deliberate obfuscation. Caucasian whispers.
Equally, there is nothing in the argument about the names of the characters. There were no protests when pantomimes of Aladdin, set in some form of Ancient China, were staged all over England over the Christmas period.
But, more than that, just as British people can have skin colour other than white, so the names of British people can be other than Moncreiff, Higgins, Holmes or Spencer. Why couldn’t a Mrs Hu be British? Is it outside the realms of possibility that there are British citizens with the surname Ghang? Merely giving a character a particular name does not indicate anything, necessarily, about their ethnicity or skin colour. Without context, what’s in a name? Nothing.
In any event, the specificity about the setting and the character names was a matter for Barker. Those choices were his, not the Print Room’s. Debate about the propriety of that could and should be confined to Barker. Otherwise, extreme censorship is at work and we are not far from a world where cultural writings are burnt in public squares.
What seemed to accelerate and drive the protesters in this case was the Print Room’s initial response to criticisms levelled at it. Of course, there is a difference between theatrical managements and creatives and cast; the two are not always in sync. Certainly, the two can, and often do, have different perspectives. But the reaction to the initial statement fused the two distinct groups, tarring the creatives and cast with the words issued by management. Caucasian whispers.
In truth, the point the protestors could have made and pressed, unarguably, was that it was wrong of the Print Room to promote or sell the production as “set in Ancient China” because that was using a false Cultural appropriation as a marketing tool. If they knew the play was universal, abstract and a construct of Barker’s, why pretend it was Chinese?
Indeed, one can see that the Print Room might have interpreted the first waves of agitation as a complaint along those lines. Because that is what they clearly, rightly, apologised about. Apology given, promotional literature amended, the matter might have ended there. It should have.
But that is not what happened. The Print Room issued a statement that had the unintended effect of lighting the blue touch paper. Social media was alight with condemnation and fierce opposition.
Most egregiously, when the Print Room said “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” protesters and commentators interpreted that as meaning “It is an English play and so it has been cast appropriately with only white actors”. Caucasian whispers.
I am not aware of the Print Room ever indicating that it thought English meant white. Their response should be seen in the context it was given, as a response to the criticism levelled at it. “Why didn’t you cast non-Caucasian actors in this non-Caucasian play set in ancient China with characters with Chinese names? Because it is an English play and was cast accordingly.” Clearly, that was the essence of the exchange. In context, all the Print Room seemed to be saying was that this was not a case like The Orphan of Zhao, the play did not have a cultural specificity or origin and so they cast it like any other play – meaning that any actor of any skin colour could have been cast.
It is at this point that accusations of racism against the creatives and cast started to be made. Actor’s Equity waded in. Christine Payne was reported as saying “This casting clearly shows that the Print Room is not engaging with the industry-wide discussion on diversity. We believe that British theatre as a whole should embrace the union’s Play Fair campaign and its principles of inclusive casting.”
Of course, the casting actually showed nothing of the sort. Caucasian whispers.
Most tellingly, in a comment on the Hurrell article, Nicholas Goh stated:
Hi Christopher, I’m Chair of Equity’s Minority Ethnic Members Committee so I was chiefly responsible for the union statement you refer to above. We specifically and deliberately referred to the statement issued by the Print Room and not the play, though I would apologise for the word ‘casting’ in our Committee statement when it should read ‘the statement clearly shows..’.
The reason for this is that not having read or heard the play, we can only address what the Print Room has said, which in itself belies significant issues with Unconscious Bias and as you refer to above, Orientalism.
This correction, as far as I can see, was never widely disseminated. Certainly, The Stage still carries the uncorrected original Equity statement which slurs the casting rather than the statement. Indeed, the wrong line was repeated in other subsequent coverage and never corrected by Equity. Caucasian whispers.
Payne also said: “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.” The Print Room statement does not say that. Caucasian whispers.
From this point on, the protest voice hardens and there seems a general assumption that the Print Room and the creatives and cast are racist and deserve severe sanction and that Equity supports that. Suggestions are made that the production should be abandoned, the four actors made unemployed. Caucasian whispers.
The wider media picked up the story and for the most part simply reported the protesters’ reading of the situation, using the incorrect Equity statement as validation. I could not find one instance of impartial investigation of the issue. Caucasian whispers.
The attacks became graver. It was asserted that only Caucasian actors had been considered for the production. It was asserted that steps were taken by the creative team, in relation to dialogue, sets and costume, to expunge “Yellowface” elements from the production before opening night. It was asserted that the actors were probably not being paid. Hopes were expressed that the production might be boycotted by critics and high-profile guests. Hopes were expressed that the production would close early although concern was expressed that this would be falsely blamed on the protesters. Caucasian whispers.
In fact, one role in the production would have gone to a non-Caucasian actor if schedules had permitted it. It was untrue that only white actors had been considered in the casting process. Justin Nardella’s design was universal not China specific and no changes in design were made because of the protests. The actors are being paid and at a rate higher than is routinely paid at venues such as Charing Cross Theatre, the Finborough or the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre.
Those are facts.
Protests about important cultural and political matters are essential in a democracy. No question. I have no doubt that many Asian actors and creatives felt aggrieved by how what had happened at the Print Room in relation to the production of In The Depths Of Dead Love had been discussed and reported in the mainstream press, the industry press and social media. I have no doubt that many Asian actors feel – and are – excluded unfairly from casting opportunities. They are right to want to address the wrongs they face and no Caucasian person has the right to tell them not to protest or how to protest.
Racism is appalling and should not be tolerated. False accusations of racism are also appalling and should not be tolerated.
Looking at the situation at a distance, it was difficult not to think about Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Care must be taken to ensure that noble intentions do not become vicious extremes. Equal opportunity for Asian actors should be a given; it should not require the unfair blackening of the names of actors and creatives to gain that equal opportunity.
The protesters complained bitterly that the Print Room was not listening to their concerns. Perhaps they were right. It may be, however, that the Print Room did listen but did not understand why the protesters were concerned and assumed they had misjudged Barker’s play and the casting. That aside though, one thing is clear: the protesters, including Equity, were not listening to the Print Room. Every statement the Print Room made was dismissed, ridiculed and reinterpreted. If people wish to be heard, surely they must also listen?
With hindsight, this looks like a case of mistaken outrage. Without knowing the text or understanding the play, the initial protesters thought In The Depths Of Dead Love was a repeat of the RSC’s serious error with The Orphan of Zhao. It wasn’t, but after Equity intervened many seemed to believe that it was just as bad if not worse.
In the end, this was another new play where the cast is all white. I don’t imagine anyone will protest when Escaped Alone (another four hander) returns to the Royal Court or when Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf (another four hander) or The Glass Menagerie opens in the West End. Perhaps there should be protests about such all white casting; perhaps every show that does not involve a diverse cast should see protests. There is an obvious fairness about that, where the protests are not discriminate. Diversity in casting is appropriate.
But the result of the “Yellowface” protest of the opening of In The Depths Of Dead Love has left the cast and creatives demoralised, hurt, and permanently stained as racist bigots and cultural vandals. Signs carried by protesters on the night of the protest made that clear. Unfair and misguided criticisms will stain their reputations whenever this production is mentioned. That is unjust and unforgivable. Equity’s role in fuelling this is reprehensible, shameful.
Artists and creatives should express their differences without calling for the destruction of artistic endeavour. Actors should be permitted to act, designers to design, and directors to direct – people should not assume that when they do they are deliberately ignoring or stamping on the cultural rights of others.
One thing I am reasonably sure about. If the National Theatre had announced the premiere season of Ivo Van Hove’s production of In The Depths Of Dead Love with Helen Mirren (Lady Hasi), Judi Dench (Mrs Hu), Ian McKellen (Lord Ghang) and Benedict Cumberbatch (Chin) there would have been no “Yellowface” protests at Southbank. Instead, tickets would have been snapped up in a heartbeat, regardless of a supposed setting in Ancient China.
Caucasian Whispers are words spoken/written by Caucasians intended to ensure that observers know they support diversity in casting and proper representation of Asian actors on stage and screen.
“Yellowface” is a practice whereby Caucasian actors use yellow makeup in order to portray authentic Asian characters. In modern times, the term includes any occasion when an authentic or ostensibly authentic Asian role is played by an actor who is not Asian whether or not makeup is used and no matter how respectful the treatment of the character may be in the text. It encompasses Cultural erasure and Cultural appropriation.
Read Tim Hochstrasser’s review of In The Depths Of Dead Love