(My initial blog post was written on Dec 20: Whitewashing at The Print Room.)
The Print Room in London, UK, is persisting with their position of being artistically justified in casting an all-white cast in a play set in Ancient China. They cite this article as their explaining position. They have also made their official statement here. It remains problematic to me that they and the playwright, Howard Barker, are happy to appropriate China and Chinese signifiers as part of making their fantasy and dismiss our objections, and they reject our objections in a manner that is rather superior (IF we knew the work of Barker. IF we understood an artist’s prerogative).Please let’s use this an an opportunity to learn and build stronger art. Here are my further thoughts on the matter after reading the article and TPR’s renewed claim:
1. The, “let’s hire the best actors” falls down as the playing field is not level. We all know that access to opportunities is imbalanced and controlled by gatekeepers/those historically in power/the privileged. We can remove the word “racist” to avoid the emotionality the word triggers, but historical bias and white privilege don’t go away.
2. The Print Room states that it is an English play and so it is not necessary to cast East Asians. Does “an English play” mean an all-white cast? NO. Reasons should be obvious enough. Why not honestly state that The Wrestling School and Howard Barker have historically worked with predominantly white actors and so this is who they have cast. It is NOT an open casting system, and so everyone should just accept that this is how they work. That would be the courageous and honest thing to state. The artists should be able to make these decisions but they should own these choices honestly. Instead, it is the pretence at being liberal, wiser and inclusive is the thing that really galls me.
3. Would they (Barker, The Wrestling School, The Print Room) be comfortable using an African or Caribbean cultural setting in the same way? Why is it ok to use Chineseness? Is it because of power differentials? “Blackness” is not to be messed with because of the more commonly known and accepted history and awareness of black history and the imperialist impact of whiteness on black bodies and spaces. Is Chineseness more easily approached because of the ideas of Chinese coldness, detachment, glittering wealth, culture and history? Is it simply because the world knows less about the opium wars, the railroads, the internment camps, the persecution of Chinese and East Asian folk in America or by the British?
4. We haven’t read the play because it hasn’t been produced yet*. I know Barker’s work, but using Chineseness to project his concerns about life makes me uncomfortable. What circumstances would make it ok? Perhaps the play functions as a self-critical piece to demonstrate how the West is uncomfortable with and is afraid of “The Chinese”. Chimerica was an attempt at looking at about how the West imagines China and gets it wrong, how we make assumptions about Chinese people. (NB Whether or not a play is good or succeeds at what it sets out to do is another matter.)
Note (19 Jan) – if “formal China” was used by Barker as a mirror to “mannered England” why might this still be problematic/pose “material damage” (in the words of a Print Room advocate. Well, any stereotype e.g. “The Chinese are formal” means that a trait is genetically inherent. Do we believe in this kind of racial determism? A Chinese person born anywhere and at any time will be formal? An African American or a Malay born anywhere and at any time will be a criminal or lazy? It doesn’t matter if the stereotype is positive or negative because it means races and skin colour are identifiable by their behaviour (good at maths, smelly, hardworking, good dancers, etc) which is determined by their genes and is immutable. I have now read the play and it has only made me feel more sadness at how it reinforces racial stereotypes in an insidious way while the production and the theatre (via its public statement) erases Chinese people and demonstrates gross privilege aggressively.
So no, I am not calling for The Print Room’s production to be censored or banned. I want it to be judged honestly by makers and audience alike. I DO believe an artist should be able to make what they want, and be judged on whether they achieve what they set out to. I don’t mind an all-white cast IF the makers know why they have chosen to do so.
– Admit they wanted to work with the people they chose from they small, selective pool.
– Admit that their idea of Englishness is, mistakenly or archaically, white.
– Admit that they thought that it’s ok to use Chinese signifiers for their own purposes, treating Chineseness as usable, wearable, in the way that people play dress up as fairies, witches or pirates. Chineseness didn’t carry the weight of blackness, for example. I know that makers often think it’s ok to play dress up as Australian aborigines or Native Americans.What do we have in common? Invisibility? Acceptance of powerlessness? Is it supposed that no ones notices or cares.
What is the “material damage” of doing this? It negates the reality of live people who, along owning some wonderful culture and history, have also been historically oppressed. It reinforces the idea that Chinese and yellow folk can be treated any which way and that it doesn’t matter. This results in the East Asian population in the UK, the third largest ethnic minority group (1.2m) after Black British (1.9m) in media, on the street, being mistreated and ignored. Police don’t pay attention to race crime against East Asians. If the perception is that yellow folk are psychologically robust, can take appropriation, bullying, if we believe that cold, money-savvy, aggressive China is going to take over the world and so a few knocks about on the street, at takeaways, on stage, won’t harm “the Chinese”, we are misunderstanding humanism.
Print Room, please do go ahead with the show. Make it as beautiful as possible. But please, please rethink your position of blamelessness. Harm has been done and it’s hurtful and arrogant to negate the lived experiences of East Asians in the way you have. But, this is an opportunity. We can all move forward and build on this. Instead of flying back and forth on various social media platforms, I would love to have a cuppa with Howard Barker, Anda, the artistic director, and the director, if they would find that more productive.
Incidentally, I’d also love there to be a safe space for actors to discuss whether they should take on a role because of possible problematic depictions of any marginalised group (women, minorities, LGBTQ+, disabled etc.).
Related blog post:
On Yellow Bodies in Media https://beautifulbitchmonsteridiot.com/2017/01/17/on-yellow-bodies-in-media/
*It has since been brought to my attention that it is published in Barker’s Collected Plays 9.