Feature: Scenes From A Yellowface Execution


By Daniel York

Before we go any further, let me lay a couple of things out there:

Howard Barker is a first-rate dramatist.

The Print Room in Notting Hill is a great small-scale theatre.

But they have epically and catastrophically screwed up their casting choices in Barker’s latest offering, In The Depths Of Dead Love. According to the theatre’s website, the play is set in “Ancient China”, concerns an “Emperor” and “Imperial Court” and features characters called “Chin” and “Mrs. Hu”, with an entirely white cast who (without wishing to sound too ironically stereotypical) one would normally expect to see on TV taking tea with Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey.

It’s also doubly ironic that in post-referendum, post-truth Brexit Britain, we’ve spent the last few months being told that you simply cannot call people stupid or racist.

Well, here’s the deal. We don’t actually have to be stupid to do stupid things and we’re all perfectly capable of perpetuating systemic racism without actually being consciously racist. Yes, it’s a subtle one, folks, and interestingly, I can honestly say, hand on heart, I have never once heard the immortal words “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” said by any person of colour. Not one. Because people of colour are ten times as aware of racism as white people. It’s just a fact.

Now, what that hotbed of London fringe theatre that is the Print Room have done, in a play by one of Britain’s most eminent playwrights, is perpetuate the practice of “yellowface,” i.e. when a person who is not of East Asian descent plays a character of East Asian descent. Yellowface, like blackface and brownface, is a remnant of a time when actors of colour were simply not allowed on our stages.

There’s often confusion about a couple of things here. People like to kid themselves that blackface only ever happened in some bygone Edwardian hinterland and only then because there were no black actors around to play Othello. However, this isn’t actually true. The last blacked up Moor of Venice on our stages was as recently as 1990. The practice was only ended by protest from black actors.

Yellowface has lingered on a lot longer, unfortunately. We did however think we’d finally laid the culturally appropriated beast to rest (on British stages at least) in 2012 when, after the Royal Shakespeare Company elected to cast only 3 (out of a cast of 17) East Asian actors in minor roles (including a dog and a maid) in the Chinese classic, The Orphan Of Zhao, a mass social media protest that went viral globally caused considerable embarrassment to both the RSC and the British theatre industry as a whole.

Since then we have seen a whole slew of productions in major theatres: Chimerica, #AiWeiWei, The World Of Extreme Happiness, Yellowface, You For Me For You, P’yongyang, Shangrila, The Sugar-Coated Bullets Of The Bourgeoisie-in major venues, achieving enormous success with casts of real-life East Asian actors, not Caucasians doing an “ethnic turn”. We will also shortly see Snow In Midsummer, at the RSC no less, and Chinglish at the Park Theatre. These are cast with actors who can actually trace their roots to Eastern Asia.

The other confusion that lingers about yellow (and black and brown) face is that if you don’t have the make-up on, the taped eyelids and the dodgy Mickey Rooney in Breakfast At Tiffany’s accent, this somehow ceases to be dodgy theatre practice and magically becomes instead a perfectly valid form of “colour-blind casting”.

But this is the deal. 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/clever enough/talented enough/capable enough to play it.

Or they simply did not exist.

In other words: erasure.

 Daniel York (sometimes known as Daniel York Loh) is a mixed-race British East Asian actor, writer, filmmaker and musician. As an actor he has appeared at the RSC, National Theatre and Royal Court, as well as in the feature films The Beach and Rogue Trader. His short films have been seen in major film festivals where they have been nominated for awards. His first full-length play, The Fu Manchu Complex, ran at Ovalhouse in 2013. Along with composer Craig Adams, he won the 2016 Perfect Pitch award to create an original stage musical, Sinking Water, based on events around the 2004 Morecambe Bay Chinese cockle-picker tragedy, which is currently being developed under commission by Theatre Royal Stratford East. He is one of 21 writers of colour featured in the collection of essays, The Good Immigrant, which won the 2016 Books Are My Bag Reader’s Choice award. He is one-third of the alt-folk trio Wondermare whose self-titled debut album is available to buy on itunes. He has served on the Equity Minority Ethnic Members Committee, is a founder member of British East Asian Artists and has worked with Act For Change to promote diversity in UK media.

10 thoughts on “Feature: Scenes From A Yellowface Execution

  1. andrewkeatesdirector says:

    I have sent two letters to Anda Winters (Artistic Director of The Print Room). Neither have been responded to.

    Saturday 17 December 2016
    Dear Anda Winters,

    I write to you with great concern. I have just seen your recently announced production of Howard Barker’s In The Depths Of Dead Love and feel compelled to write to you in your role of Artistic Director of The Print Room.

    My name is Andrew Keates and I am currently in auditions before directing David Henry Hwang’s London premiere of Chinglish at the Park Theatre next year, produced by Tim Johanson, Julie Clare and my own production company, Arion Productions. Our reason for mounting this production was simple: i) it’s a brilliant play, ii) in our opinion East Asian performers, production & creative team professionals are woefully under represented in our industry and iii) I believe there is a current climate where we should be championing exploring and understanding different cultures in these turbulent and dangerous political and xenophobic times.

    In the past few months, we have found appropriate East Asian actors fluent in Mandarin and appointed and funded (after not receiving Arts Council Funding for widening our access needs I might add) an East Asian assistant director as well as other cultural advisors and key team members to make sure we serve David Henry Hwang’s piece about the East/West divide as authentically as possible and make sure we never belittle this small but extraordinary community within our industry. We are developing outreach programmes with Yellow Earth for schools to experience workshops and masterclasses within this culture, not to mention the endless connections, recommendations and links to build bridges not only for the sake of the production, but for our audiences to connect with the subject matter, culture and language. I explain all of this as I know it is not an easy task, but with hard work the rewards are endless.

    However, I am horrified after reading your synopsis of In The Depths of Love;
    “Set in ancient China, In the Depths of Dead Love tells of a poet exiled from the Imperial Court & the favour of the Emperor, who scrapes a living by renting his peculiar property – a bottomless well – to aspiring suicides.”

    Your entire cast (Jane Bertish, William Chubb, James Clyde, Stella Gonet) are all clearly Caucasian actors when the characters are written to be Chinese, (Mrs Hu, Lord Ghang, Chin, Lady Hasi) . You must not endorse this racist, outdated and unnecessary practice of ‘yellow face’ and instead find actors who are appropriate. It casts my mind back to the misjudged, ignorant decisions to cast Jonathan Pryce as the role of The Engineer in Miss Saigon, taping his eyes and applying make-up instead of just finding an appropriate actor for the ethnicity of the role. Indeed, our own playwright, David Henry Hwang wrote about this decision in his recent production of Yellow Face at the Park and National Theatres. It is no more acceptable today asking a Caucasian actor to play an East Asian role than asking another actor to play Othello by handing him a tin of boot polish. Simply put, it’s morally reprehensible.

    I ask you as Artistic Director to consider meeting with the creative team of In The Depths Of Dead Love immediately and ask them to reconsider this disgusting and bigoted casting or that you pull the production from your programme until they are able to satisfy its casting requirements without detriment to East Asian actors in London.

    Yours sincerely,

    Andrew Keates

    Andrew Keates
    Artistic Director of Arion Productions Ltd

    and after a journalist sent me their PR departments response.

    Monday 19 December 2016
    Dear Anda Winters,

    I sent you an open letter on the 17th December 2016 regarding your casting for the upcoming production of Howard Barker’s In The Depths of Dead Love at The Print Room currently under your Artistic Directorship. You will also be aware that I have organised a peaceful protest from 5pm – 11pm outside The Print Room to coincide with the productions opening night to bring attention to the marginalisation of East Asian actors in British theatre, inspired by your decision to allow four Caucasian actors to play the role of four parts that have been given Chinese names, in a play set in “Ancient China”.

    I am yet to have a personal response from you, however a journalist has sent the following statement from your PR department, although I have not seen this published on any of your social media platforms as a response to the hundreds of those that believe that this decision is racist, unnecessary and deeply insulting.

    “In the Depths of Dead Love is a very simple fable; it is not a play that tells a Chinese story, it is not about Chinese society, culture or perspectives. If it were, the casting would be very different, naturally. Whilst the characters have been given Chinese names, that is to reference the abstract and the folkloric idea of the universal; we could just as easily be in the metaphorical area of Hans Christian Anderson, or, alternatively, the land of the Brothers Grimm. 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. This dark comedy was first presented by BBC Radio 3 in 2013, supervised by Howard Barker, starring Richard E Grant and Francesca Annis, to great acclaim. We acknowledge that some publicity materials seem to have permitted the possibility of a misapprehension arising. Print Room remains committed to diversity and inclusiveness in all we do, as our history shows. “

    Firstly, I would like to make the definition of ‘yellow face’ clear. Some may still believe that it just means a non-East Asian actor applying make-up or taping their eyes to appear East Asian. That definition is correct, however after many progressive years, ‘yellow face’ also means any non-East Asian playing the role of an East Asian.

    My anger towards this production is because ethnicity is not simply a costume or makeup. It’s a racial identity and when a setting is clearly defined, as your production has been, by casting those who are not that race, you are essentially depriving those of their own world and heritage. Do you think the Caucasians play ’Chinese’ better? I despair at this backwards retaliation. East Asian actors have been woefully marginalised from appearing on stage for centuries. We as influential theatre-makers have a duty and debt that needs to be paid due to this marginalisation, which means (in my opinion) when we can cast actors from minorities, then we should to re-address the balance of a predominately, male, Caucasian industry. Furthermore, you should be ashamed of yourselves for having no ambition whatsoever to cast East Asian actors in a play that could so clearly have done so. You cannot have your cake and eat it. You state that it is set in China, with Chinese names and then you say it could be set in the ‘metaphorical era of Hans Christian Anderson’ or ’the Brothers’s Grimm’. Well then, why has Mr Barker set it in China? I fear this production is a very ugly duckling that will intrinsically remain as white as his signet brothers and sisters.

    Your statement that it is ‘a very English play’ is perhaps one of the most insulting, narrow-minded and racist views I have ever heard. Please can you explain to me why a very English play immediately equates to Caucasian casting? Just listen to yourselves.

    Some have argued that this could be seen as ‘colour-blind casting’. This concept is frequently misunderstood too. Colour-blind casting is not an enabling concept to allow anyone to play anything. It’s about re-addressing the historical balance of marginalised performers. If this play were about ‘universal’ or ‘folkloric’ subjects and had been set in say, Uganda, would you still have cast a Caucasian cast? I think not. The same respect and sensitivity should be afforded to our East Asian colleagues. Howard Barker will be using another cultures heritage to tell his story, whilst your production will be actively erasing those from that culture who are intrinsic to the location of your production. It should not surprise you that Chinese people lived in ancient China. Caucasians did not.

    Do you not want young East Asians to visit this production and your tiny theatre to be inspired to work within or enjoy the arts? Do you not want to champion the many great East Asian performers who could so readily have filled these positions? Why on Earth have you no passion or desire to serve this neglected part of the community and cast Caucasian actors who clearly dominate all of your programming. I object to your flippant statement, “Print Room remains committed to diversity and inclusiveness in all we do, as our history shows”. You clearly are not committed to this policy. From looking at all of you listed past productions on your website, every single actor that I could search for on Spotlight are all Caucasian. Of all of your productions, this is the production where you could have put your money where your mouth is in regards to inclusivity and diversity and you have not. Did you bother to hold auditions and did the team see ANY East Asian performers for these roles? Or was it a closed shop of the director phoning up his mates? Or as I am started to fear, is this precisely what Howard Barker wants? To use PR to sell his play at the cost of setting a precedent of a social minority?

    I know he likes pickets and protests at his plays and I make it clear that I will gladly stand in solidarity with East Asian’s and their allies who are passionate about the representation of East Asians in the arts on your opening night. What you are doing is wrong and frankly, I would have expected better from someone of your previous integrity, experience and intellect Anda.

    Pull the production. Mistakes have been made in the past and you must not provide kindling for them to be repeated in the future. Don’t use all of this publicity you are receiving to just sell this cancerous little show and instead, consider how you could set an example to theatre-makers everywhere by casting East Asian performers – after all – “In the Depths of Dead Love is a very simple fable”.


    Andrew Keates
    Artistic Director of Arion Productions


    • Martin Park says:

      “My name is Andrew Keates and I am currently in auditions before directing David Henry Hwang’s London premiere of Chinglish at the Park Theatre next year,”

      It is blatantly obvious that you are using this case as a cynical means of self-promotion, Mr. Keates.


  2. Sarah Lee says:

    Get over yourself. Not all acting is representational.

    Besides, “East Asia” is a eurocentric concept. Ancient Chinese did not see themselves as “East Asians”, they saw China as the “Middle Kingdom”, as the centre of the world.

    To demand that all Chinese roles be played by East Asian actors is to demand that China constantly be seen through the lense of a eurocentric worldview, to be portrayed as an ethnic minority even in their own country.


  3. James Mortenia says:

    “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/clever enough/talented enough/capable enough to play it.”

    This argument is flawed.

    It assumes that in all cases characters are defined by their race; that the race of a character is always not only significant (rather than incidental), but more significant than any other characteristic (how a character speaks and moves, whether they are tall or short, fat or thin).

    It also assumes that all acting is an attempt to represent a kind of platonic ideal of a character with the greatest possible verisimilitude. This is akin to argument that all pictorial art should strive towards photorealism – in fact, just as a painter may choose to paint his model with a blue face and exaggerated limbs in order to achieve a particular artistic effect, the director of a play may choose to represent a Confucian scholar in the manner of a fat Oxford don, or a Chinese Emperor as a Regency aristocrat, and thus deliberately cast an actor of a different race in order to achieve a particular impression.

    The ultimate outcome of this kind of crusade to brand all cross-ethic casting as “racist” may ultimately not be more parts for East Asian actors, as I suspect you hope for, but instead may lead to playwrights and theatres avoiding East Asian settings and subjects for fear of becoming the targets of criticism or abuse; i.e. less diversity rather than more.


  4. ” If you take a white character and cast it with an East Asian actor you’re effectively saying there is no white actor who was good enough/clever enough/talented enough/capable enough to play it.”

    Be careful what you wish for.


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