In 2005, I played the role of Thuy, a Viet Cong commissar and the betrothed cousin of the female lead, Kim, in the Arts Club Theatre’s production of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s mega-musical Miss Saigon, in Vancouver, Canada. The musical is an adaptation by two French men of the opera Madama Butterfly, itself a piece of flagrant orientalism by Puccini, an Italian composer. Transposing the action of Madama Butterfly from 1904 Nagasaki to the Vietnam War, Miss Saigon has been both lauded for its hyperreal spectacle (including the famous ‘helicopter scene’) and denounced for its paternalistic and colonial attitude towards Southeast Asia (the bar girls, the scene in Bangkok, and yes, the same old suicide). At the time, I was aware of the arguments against the piece (my cousin Elaine had written a rather scathing essay on it for her Women’s Studies class at SFU) but, to be honest, I didn’t let it bother me. It was a job. And furthermore, it was a job for me.
Here’s the thing: Vancouver, as it is well known, has a large East Asian and South Asian population, including a high percentage of first, second, third and fourth generation Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, South Asian, Korean, and Vietnamese immigrants. Out of this Asian Canadian community, some of us are actors. When the Arts Club – being Vancouver’s largest non-touring, ‘homegrown’, theatre company – announced Miss Saigon as its summer show, our community of Asian Canadian actors couldn’t believe our luck. Finally, we thought. Here is a show for us. Here is a show about Asia. Here is visibility. It’s fairly easy to feel invisible as an actor of East Asian origin – after all, the roles we tended to audition for were generally predicated on their rather marginal visibility: the computer guy, the drug dealer (who hides away in the shadows), the waiter. Or rather, maybe we felt silent. After all, these roles were often S.O.C. (Silent-on-Camera), and anyway, isn’t that the stereotype? Aren’t we quiet? Shy? Inscrutable? Emotionless?
But here was a show where Asian Canadian bodies were visible, in often exploitative states of undress, in feats of dance and acrobatics, but also noisy, loud. We were no longer silent: we sang full-throated and raw. This was a piece in which a small Vietnamese peasant girl belts the lines: ‘A song / played on a solo saxophone / a crazy sound / a lonely sound / a cry, that tells us love / goes on and on.’ No cod-Vietnamese accent. No broken English. Just melodramatic sentimentality combined with a rather lovely melody and a virtuosic performance.
I played Thuy for three months, and loved it. Despite only appearing in the first act, this was a great character, with a spectacular and indulgently melismatic death scene. After the show closed, however, I felt a nagging suspicion: what if this is as good as it gets? After Thuy, who? The guy in Flower Drum Song? Or wait until the gods of colour-blind casting deign to ‘reflect Canada’s multicultural heritage’ and throw us a bone? Two months after the show closed I moved to London to begin a Master’s Degree at Central School of Speech & Drama, the first step on the path to my current role as Lecturer in Theatre Studies at Brunel University.
I offer this story as a way of understanding, from the inside, the complex and often conflicted feelings felt by actors of Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) origin when confronted with works that embody colonial, orientalist, and downright racist attitudes. I know Miss Saigon is pretty offensive. History is going to prove that bar scene as one of the most egregious combinations of racism and misogyny in musical theatre. But deep down, I still love it, as do, I will bet you, many people of East and Southeast Asian origin (though not my cousin Elaine). It launched the international career of the Filipino actress and singer Lea Salonga – just as in the 1910s, the Japanese singer Miura Tamaki rose to fame playing Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly. The relation between racist and colonialist stage works and the BAME actors who take part in these works is complicated, and I believe has to do with the dual nature of the theatre as a space of visibility and invisibility, of representation and the real, and of make-believe and truth.
What happens, then, when we encounter a theatre work that seems so calculated as to deny visibility to those persons it supposedly represents? The work in question is the Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Orphan of Zhao, which opens at The Swan in Stratford-upon-Avon on 30 October 2012. As has been already reported by bloggers including British-Chinese poet/writer Anna Chen and British-Chinese actress and associate director of True Heart Theatre Lucy Sheen, The Orphan of Zhao is an adaptation of a 13th Century Yuan Dynasty ‘zaju’ (mixed-drama) by Ji Junxiang, adapted by writer James Fenton. It is, apparently, the first work of this Chinese dramatic form to be translated into English.
(Here is a show for us. Here is a show about China. Here is visibility.)
As if learning nothing from the scandal that surrounded the La Jolla Playhouse and their production of The Nightingale, an original musical set in ‘mythic China’ (whatever that is), the RSC’s Artistic Director (and director of The Orphan of Zhao) Gregory Doran has chosen to cast, out of 17 roles, only 3 actors of East Asian origin. Worse still, these three actors play two halves of a dog, and a maid. There are other BAME actors in the play, but all major roles are played by white actors. Despite this, the RSC’s publicity for the production depicts a young boy of East Asian origin, and the company is courting Chinese audiences, with a information on the play given in Chinese on the website (after all, Chinese people only like to see Chinese things, and eat Chinese food, and, I don’t know, go around holding chrysanthemums). Needless to say, this racist casting decision hasn’t been without controversy, though this controversy has been somewhat invisible – Chen points out that Anglo-Chinese actor Daniel York*, who is Equity’s BAME representative, has been trying for months to elicit a response from the RSC without luck. On 19 October 2012, in response to increasing pressure online, the RSC issued a lukewarm non-response, which can be found here.
I don’t want to summarise previous arguments or the debate as a whole, but rather to offer a personal and analytical response on why the RSC’s casting decision bothers me so much.
What The Orphan of Zhao’s white-washing feels like is Miss Saigon in reverse. Miss Saigon is an orientalist work because it was written by two white French man, and directed by a white English man, who depicted a fundamentally orientalist narrative in which a Vietnamese girl falls in love with an American (white) soldier, is left, has a child, and kills herself in grief upon discovery that her GI has a new wife. On Youtube you can find footage of a very young Lea Salonga auditioning for the part of Kim. The image of a young Filipina in Catholic white, hair tied back and decorated with sampa gita (the Philippines’ national flower, a small white blossom), singing in a fantastically clear and resonant mezzo-soprano, looked on by a table of middle-aged white men, including National Theatre Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner, is very familiar. It is an image of exoticism. Boublil and Schönberg attempt to represent a reality of the East from a Western position of enunciation. The device through which they do this is spectacle. Asian bodies, as I have said before, are made (literally) visible, they are readable and audible. While the content of the representation itself may be problematic, Miss Saigon as a theatrical form makes Asian bodies present.*
The Orphan of Zhao, on the other hand, is a classic Chinese text. Its position of enunciation, the place from where it speaks, is China. In adapting the text, The RSC, a British company are engaging in an act of appropriation. To their credit, I don’t think the RSC are unaware of this, in fact, Gregory Doran has written blogs on going to China, and engaging in research and so on. What their failure to consider the visibility of Asian performers in this production is a failure to understand the very nature of theatre, and the real effects beyond representation that theatre’s choices in terms of what is seen and what can be seen (its mise-en-scène) can have.
The ontology of theatre is dual – it is at once a form that trades in representation, illusions, shades, but at the same time it accomplishes these things through the real, through an organisation of bodies, materials, and images. This is what the French philosopher Jacques Rancière calls the ‘distribution of the sensible.’ Art, and by extension, theatre, for Rancière, may create representations, it may be false, it may be make-believe, but its effects are no less real, because it helps to establish common modes of perception. To read theatre as a distribution of the sensible means that it establishes what is and isn’t able to be visible or represented, in the ‘common sense’ (and here I use sense in its dual meaning, of both a perception through the senses, and the meaning or understanding that arises therefrom). These common modes of perception are important because they structure what Rancière calls the ‘police order’, which means the set of unspoken but understood rules that determine certain roles in society. Such elisions between the representational mode of art and the social field are pretty evident when we consider even the word representation – the ‘asylum seeker’ is a figure only represented in a certain way, while those seeking asylum in the UK increasingly have less and less recourse to legal representation. When aesthetics structures what can be seen and heard in the field of art, it is also structures in social life, how we perceive who may appear, speak, participate in democracy.
Back to The Orphan of Zhao, Doran’s casting choice represents an artistic gesture that effectively reproduces, rather than challenges, the existing distribution of the sensible, in which East Asians are typically seen as the ‘model minority’: high-achieving, but silent, and especially, compliant. Doran is perfectly within his rights to cast as he wishes, but he should be aware of the way his piece reproduces the status quo. Take the example of the character of the ‘Demon Mastiff.’ Played by Siu Hun Li, Chris Lew Kum Hoi (both of apparently Chinese origin) and Joan Iyiola (a black actor), the Demon Mastiff is described by the RSC in their ‘clarification’ in response to the controversy, as a ‘spectacular piece of puppetry.’ On the level of representation, on the make-believe level of theatre, perhaps. Perhaps I will be thrilled to see these three actors operate a demon dog puppet so as to create the illusion of a real animal. But on the level of the sensible, I will also be aware that I am watching three actors of colour three levels removed from visibility and speech – they are speaking (if they speak) through an avatar, they are three represented as one, they are visible through an avatar that is meant to draw our attention away from the material evidence of their Otherness, their bodies. I will be aware that these actors of colour are not in a position in which they are made visible, present, and importantly, heard. This is not the case for Lucy Briggs-Owen, who plays The Princess — she, on the other hand is able to be visible, and to speak, without the mediation of a puppet. This position of voiceless-ness and removal from visibility reproduces the police order by which those most seen and heard, are white, with minority ethnic persons relegated to existing roles.
The RSC’s response to the controversy was pretty lukewarm and insufficient, but very telling*. They tell us that: ‘we are always aiming to reflect the diverse population of the UK’, and there we have it, it is indeed a reflection – a reproduction. ‘The multi-cultural make-up of our winter season company reflects British society.’ Indeed it does, very well, right down to the entrenched prejudice that is felt by BAME persons all the time. The response attempts to portray the RSC as progressive and global, noting that The Orphan of Zhao ‘originally came from China, and has since been revived, adapted and explored by many writers across the world.’ If true, this doesn’t explain why then the RSC would choose to play up the Chinese angle, by using its online and print marketing to reach out to a Chinese audience, and by fetishizing a boy with East Asian appearance on its publicity image – and then committing the old hypocrisy of folding all this back into old hegemonic casting practices.
In summary, I respect Doran’s right to artistic expression. But I believe he has made the wrong choice, and a very damaging one. Certainly he has done nothing to alter our ‘common modes of perception’, unless, perhaps, we count the number of Asian writers and artists making noise against the RSC, and the growing lines of affinity to other communities that have also experienced such invisibility. The only proper response at this point by the RSC would be to acknowledge that hurt has been caused – this uproar isn’t a moan, a complaint, it’s a response to genuine hurt. To be told that the ‘best person for the part’ of ‘Chinese Princess’ is a white woman, is deeply wounding. But it happens all the time. (Jason Chu’s poem Colourblind has a great list of examples).
I don’t really think about race very often. I don’t believe I experience racism very often on a daily basis. When I perform, in my dance work with a white male performer, I don’t believe we are perceived through the lens of race, and audience feedback bears this out. But every so often I will be reminded that while I may not be confronted with racism on a personal or individual level, there is still systemic, entrenched racism in Western society. The white-washing of ‘our’ works of art, be they The Orphan of Zhao or the proposed American remake of Akira, isn’t malicious on some individual level, it’s systemic. But systemic racism is still felt as racism. White-washing reproduces the common mode of perception that the default position of speech and visibility is a white man or woman. It takes away the little thrill of ‘here is a story for me.’
When I was an actor in Vancouver moaning about auditioning for another take-away driver or something where I had to speak broken English, the advice everyone gave was ‘well, stop complaining and start making your own work.’ Good advice. I guess that’s what I ended up doing. I think most actors of colour should follow it. The way to truly engage and challenge the ‘distribution of the sensible’ is not to pine away for the fabled contract at the RSC or 6 months in Miss Saigon. It is to stop saying ‘here is a story for me’ and to start saying ‘here is my story.’
– 19 October 2012
Dr Broderick Chow, Lecturer in Theatre Studies, Brunel University London, and co-founder of dance and physical theatre duo the Dangerologists.
* Daniel York has worked with the RSC before. But, amazingly, he is the only actor of Chinese origin to be cast by the RSC in 20 years. The RSC often blazes a trail for colour-blind casting, having produced an all-black Julius Caesar and an Indian production of Much Ado About Nothing, but they really seem to dislike Chinese people.
* The singing voice in Miss Saigon is an interesting issue, as all characters, no matter what race or ethnicity, sing in an Anglo-American accent, without resorting to broken English. The voice is thus a leveller that perhaps marks out Miss Saigon as an early piece of the theatre of globalisation.
* Although their defense of ‘The Maid’, played by Susan Momoko Hingley, is pretty funny: ‘”The Maid” is one of the key roles in the play. She stands up to tyranny and is executed.’ Because of course, a good death scene, like Thuy’s, makes all the difference. And doesn’t their description sound like Tuptim in The King and I?