British East Asian artists lambast ‘racist’ British theatre for lack of acting roles

Published 02:06pm
Tuesday, June 9, 2009

 

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for years before the latest RSC racist casting of the remake of Orphan of Zhao. East Asian British suffered racism in the theatre business.

 

 

British East Asian artists have decried the lack of acting roles and creative opportunities available to them through mainstream arts organisations.

They believe they are lagging behind other ethnic groups and have criticised the UK’s theatre industry for failing to nurture an “equal playing field” for performers. The practitioners are calling on casting directors to make bolder decisions when picking actors and want to see national newspapers employ theatre critics from diverse backgrounds, in order to improve the way East Asian artists are represented in the arts.

According to writer and actor Andy Cheung – who has worked for the likes of the English National Opera, Yellow Earth and Twisting Yarn Theatre Company – most Asian performers are only offered stereotypical roles and are overlooked when it comes to “colour-blind casting”.

“Putting it bluntly, it seems to be that white actors can play anything and to a lesser extent British blacks and British South Asians, but not East Asians,” he said.

“I get the feeling that stage directors are not confident in British East Asian actors being on stage in anything other than East Asian stories. As a British Chinese actor, I feel like a black man living in the fifties.”

Cheung’s comments were echoed by stand-up comic, actor and writer Anna Chen.

She said: “I write my own stuff because I realised ages ago that parts are not written for Chinese actresses and colour-blind casting is all well and good, but it is one-way traffic.”

Meanwhile, one leading director who wished to remain anonymous, branded the British theatre industry as “institutionally racist”. He said that it should not be left up to specialist companies to provide opportunities for East Asian actors.

The director added: “We [the East Asian community] pay our BBC licence fee, we pay our taxes. We don’t get anything proportionate back. We need more funding from Arts Council England to help the sector develop.

“At the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre you regularly see black or South Asian actors, and it doesn’t happen with East Asians. That’s got to change – we make up just under 1% of the population.”

The director warned that the industry would end up with “egg on its face” when trying to promote internationalism and diversity in the run up to the 2012 Games, if it failed to stop the tradition of “yellow face” in British theatre – white actors donning make-up to play East Asian characters.

Earlier this month, a run of Bryony Lavery’s More Light, produced by Under the Bed for the Arcola Theatre, caused outcry for not casting East Asian performers, despite being set in China.

The show’s director Catrina Lear said that the company of actors had existed before the play was chosen and added that if auditions had been held, no ethnic group would have been discriminated against.