I never make New Year’s resolutions. They work for other people and that’s great, but they aren’t my thing. But Daisy Bowie-Sell’s tweet from a few days ago asking what theatre’s resolutions should be for 2017 resonated with me. An industry making resolutions? Now that’s something I can get behind – people working together for a common goal is what theatre is about on a microcosmic level anyway, and more unity is surely a good thing in a world becoming increasingly polarised.
I replied immediately to Daisy’s tweet with “diversity”, an issue present in the foreground of my thoughts since the Print Room announced the cast of your upcoming Howard Barker premier, In the Depths of Dead Love. The production’s web page describes the play as, “Set in ancient China, In the Depths of Dead Love tells of a poet exiled from the Imperial Court & the favour of the Emperor…”
What with the distinct location and time period, choosing a completely white cast is naive at best, and outrageously racist at worst. Surely this is obvious – white actors favoured over minority ethnic actors in a play set in a non-white country simply isn’t acceptable anymore, regardless of similar cases in the past that went unquestioned. Substitute “China” for any African country in the play’s description – would you still feel this is acceptable?
I’d like to assume your casting stems from ignorance rather than deliberate erasure of Chinese culture. White privilege can be a difficult concept to process when first confronted with it. I’m a white person – I’ve gone through the denial, questioning, then guilty acceptance of my position in western society being higher than that of someone who is not white. Even though I am a woman and an immigrant, my skin colour grants me easier access to pretty much everything in life than a person of colour has.
The great thing about ignorance is that it can be diminished by acknowledging and correcting past mistakes or habits – rather like a New Year’s resolution. Resolving the racism of your casting choice is simple – apologise, then make a change. Recasting or cancelling the production is the correct response to dealing with the mistake you made and indicates a desire to learn and grow on your part. Not doing so betrays a lack of understanding of your own white privilege.
Rather than correcting your error, your subsequent responses to public outcry indicate not only ignorance of your white privilege but a wider systemic racism that condones actions like these. Let’s look at your statements that you issued following the criticism of your casting:
“…it is not a play that tells a Chinese story, it is not about Chinese society, culture or perspectives.” The previously cited website copy indicates this is either a lie, or you have little understanding about setting and place in theatrical context.
“Whilst the characters have been given Chinese names, that is to reference the abstract and the folkloric idea of the universal…” Through this statement, you indicate that China’s history and culture is an abstract concept rather than a real place, populated with people of a distinct culture. Also, you cast white actors to indicate “the universal”. Considering white people make up less than 10% of the global population, that means your entire cast should be non-white if you want to represent a truly universal story.
“It is, in fact a very ‘English’ play and is derived from thoroughly English mores…” Given that in 2011 87% of Britain was white, your racism is somewhat legitimised, like that of white supremacists who feel that overt racist acts are condoned by Brexit. However, equating “white” with “English” utterly disregards non-white Britons. You essentially state they do not exist.
“No offence was intended and…none should be taken.” It is not the role of the majority to dictate what a minority should or should not be offended by. A man telling a woman she should not be offended by sexual harassment is a suitable analogy you should consider.
Your privilege isn’t your fault – you cannot help being born white and privileged, but there is an obligation that comes with such an esteemed status in society. What is most troubling is your deafness – your refusal to make a resolution – to the numerous voices calling out your actions as unacceptable. Your white privilege dictates that you should work that much harder to provide opportunities to those less advantaged, and your position of power as a theatre programmer gives you the chance to do so.
On a personal level, it’s embarrassing to have to continuously apologise on behalf of my own race, especially within an industry I passionately defend and champion in a country that is becoming increasingly hostile towards the arts. On a wider level, your attitude goes against the unity and inclusivity that theatre stands for. A lack of diversity is an issue throughout the industry – there simply is not enough representation of BAME/POC, disabled, female, queer, working class and foreign voices – that practitioners on the whole actively seek to redress. Your casting choice actively blocks progress. So here’s a resolution for the whole of the Print Room this year: brush up on your white privilege and fix your mistake. Recast or cancel In the Depths of Dead Love and show the country that theatre will not tolerate racism and cultural erasure.
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