UK theater in yellowface casting row

By Bo Leung | China Daily UK | Updated: 2017-01-05 19:22

British-Chinese and East Asian actors, including Harry Potter actress Katie Leung, along with other members of the theater community, have condemned a London venue for setting a play in China with Chinese characters but an apparently all-white cast.

UK theater in yellowface casting row

Katie Leung plays a role in Harry Potter movies. [China Daily] 

The Print Room in Notting Hill is showing In the Depths of Dead Love by Howard Barker this month, a play set in ancient China that is about Chinese people and that features characters with Chinese names, such as Mrs Hu and Chin.

The production does not seem to feature a single actor of Chinese or East-Asian descent.

"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'," the company said in a media statement.

But David Tse, creative director of London-based British East Asian performance company Chinese Arts Space told China Daily: "This is a clear example of institutional racism, the Print Room probably didn't even think about casting actors of East Asian origin and it didn't occur to them how of ensive the play would be. If blackface is unacceptable then why should yellowface casting be any different?"

Yellowface casting is the derogatory term used to describe Caucasian actors assuming Chinese or Asian roles.

British-born Chinese actor KC Li from Manchester said opportunities for British-Chinese and East Asians are already scarce. "Yellowface and whitewashing is wrong but people tend to turn a blind eye to it," Li said. "Until someone takes a stand and fights our corner higher up in the industry, nothing is going to change," Li said.

The 35-year-old male actor added: "The Print Room is in London where it is full of British East Asian performance companies, such as Chinese Arts Space and Yellow Earth, so there is no excuse to not use actors of Chinese or East Asian descent."

A protest against the Print Room has been planned for Jan 19. It is being organized by director Andrew Keates, who said East-Asian performers were "woefully underrepresented in our industry", adding that the use of Caucasian actors was "unacceptable and racist".

The West London theater apologized in the statement for any offence caused and claimed In the Depths of Dead Love is "a very English play".

It added that the play is not a Chinese play and that 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."

But critics were unimpressed with the venue's explanation saying the "theatre showed that it does not comprehend what yellowface and racial erasure mean and have made no effort to show any empathy to the community they have affronted".

"If the play is mythical and not real, then why not set it in a fictitious land based in England?" Tse said. "The theatre's nonsense excuse reflects very badly on the production."


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