London storm turns spotlight on ‘whitewashing’ in film and theatre

Jingan Young says the practice of casting Caucasian actors in East Asian roles and criticism of it go back a long way, but recent events prove ‘yellowface’ is far from history

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 December, 2016, 1:53pm
UPDATED : Friday, 30 December, 2016, 7:01pm

The West London theatre venue, the Print Room, recently announced its latest seasonal offering: Howard Barker’s In The Depths of Dead Love.

The play, set to open in January, is “set in ancient China” and “tells of a poet exiled from the Imperial Court”, and follows four characters with names such as Mrs Hu and Chin. However, it features no actors of Chinese or East Asian descent.

Unsurprisingly, the outcry of disbelief from the London theatre community, including Equity, the UK’s trade union for performers, and Harry Potter actress Katie Leung, led to a perfunctory apology on the venue’s blog. However, this failed to address the issue directly with regard to racial erasure, furthermore stating that the characters’ names were “never intended to be taken literally”.

A later statement from the venue in response to the criticism ran: “It (the play) is not about Chinese society, culture or perspectives (but is) in fact a very ‘English’ play”.

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So “English”, in fact, that all of its cast is of Caucasian background. In other words, the Print Room has decided to not only instigate the practice of “yellowface”, but to suggest that “English” roles may only be represented by white actors.

2016 has seen an overwhelming amount of ‘whitewashing’ of Asian roles in Hollywood

“Yellowface” does not simply equate to non-Chinese /East Asian actors playing an Asian role putting on makeup to look the part, the “practice means pretending to be Asian or of Asian heritage when one simply is not, whether with the intent of honouring or slandering”, says Howard Sherman in the celebrated performing arts publication, The Stage . Actor-director Daniel York goes further in his article, “Scenes from a Yellowface Execution” : “If you take an East Asian character and cast it with a white actor, you’re effectively saying there is no East Asian actor who was good enough… Or they simply did not exist. In other words: erasure.”

The arts are more often than not a celebration of differences but, throughout history, the Chinese/East Asian community has suffered from severe misrepresentation on stage and screen, from Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Katherine Hepburn in Dragon Seed, the practice of “yellowface” has perpetuated negative Asian stereotypes. This in turn has detrimentally affected roles for Asian actors, alongside what stories can be and are told. I myself struggle to be heard and the UK is one of the worst offenders.

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Rather troublingly, 2016 has seen an overwhelming amount of “whitewashing” of Asian roles in Hollywood. Think Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange or Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell.

More recently, director Zhang Yimou’s epic historical drama Great Wall caused a stir due to the casting of Matt Damon in a film set in the Song dynasty. However, the director said Damon was cast “Because he’s my favourite actor” and that the role was “always intended” to be played by a non-Chinese actor, arguably to bolster its global appeal. But does this really help a Western audience to better understand Chinese history and culture? Aren’t producers underestimating a Western audience’s interest in China and the rest of Asia?

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Sherman said the Print Room’s casting decisions were “forging forward with abstract, disingenuous excuses that fool no one who actually understands what diversity and inclusion genuinely mean”.

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Barker’s play originally premiered on BBC’s Radio 3 in 2013, and starred noted film and theatre actor Richard E. Grant. A review concluded that the Chinese setting “proved nothing more than a convenient pretext”. This echoes the Print Room’s sentiments of using it as a metaphorical setting, so why then use Chinese settings, names and cultural practices, if these are irrelevant?

Since the Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Orphan of Zhao casting controversy in 2012, which I wrote about in this paper under the title, “Will the door to Asian actors in Britain truly be opened?”, great progress has been made in providing opportunities and diversifying roles for actors and writers alike. But the latest debacle proves we have still a long way to go.

Jingan Young is a freelance writer and playwright