AN OPEN LETTER TO THE PRINT ROOM
Dear Print Room
We have admired you for a long time for bringing high quality and interesting work to the London fringe. Perhaps that is why we held off for too long in calling you out for the way you handled both the casting and marketing of your latest production ‘In the Depths of Dead Love’ by Howard Barker. We should have spoken out earlier. But it was your response to the criticism which finally tested our patience to its limit.
This is what your original publicity says about the play:
“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”
You then list a cast of white actors, and you have been quite rightly and widely criticised for this, which is essentially the practice of yellowface. If you need an explanation, see these pieces by Daniel York, Lucy Sheen and Amanda Rogers.
Then we see this headline in The Stage: ‘Social Media Attack will not force a change in our Artistic Policy’. Is this just The Stage stirring things up? Well, in a letter to supporters, we have this comment from you: “We are not willing, however, to change our artistic policy in response to a social media attack conducted, without consulting us, by people who appear not to have read the work and are therefore unable to consider the play in its artistic context,”
Oh dear. You seem to think this is a debate about art, and that we can only participate in it if we have actually read the play. As though the greatness of the work will make up for any political incorrectness in putting it on. Funnily enough, we witnessed some appalling yellowface recently in a production of ‘Anything Goes’ which is not mitigated in any way by the greatness of Cole Porter’s writing. Howard Barker doesn’t deserve special treatment either.
Others have explained this better than us, but let’s just summarise:
You say: “In the Depths of Dead Love is not a Chinese play and the characters are not Chinese. The production references a setting in Ancient China and the characters’ names are Chinese. These are literary allusions in Howard Barker’s fable and never intended to be taken literally. The allusions are intended to signify “not here, not now, not in any actual real ‘where’ ” and the production, set, costumes and dialogue follow this cue of ‘no place’.”
Remember this is meant to be an apology. Instead, you seem to be suggesting that it is OK because the ‘Chinese’-ness is not real. It is just a theatrical device. Yes, this is a common technique, but it is essentially racist. It is the use of other races and cultures to signify the ‘other’, to conjure up an exoticism of the unknown. It is cultural appropriation and stereotyping. Our advice? When you are in a hole, stop digging. This is the 21st century.
You say: “The Print Room understands that some will find such an interplay between cultural reference and artistic imagination troubling. We regret that our initial public announcements about this play were not sensitive to this fact.”
Sounds apologetic until the patronising tone starts to come through. You have neatly projected the problem back onto the individual. Your announcement was not offensive – people took offence, and by implication, these are people of limited imagination who just cannot see the greatness of Barker’s artistry.
You have also implied that because the play is ‘English’ you can only employ white actors, which in itself speaks volumes, and then used the ‘we employed the best actors for the job’ excuse, as if to imply that you couldn’t find any East Asian Actors that were good enough. We can’t actually decide which of these apparently contradictory excuses is more offensive.
But what really offends us as theatre bloggers is that the people you are referring to, the people who ‘appear not to have read the work’, are the same people who have written extensively and articulately on the subject of yellowface for a long time, who have lived with its consequences, who have campaigned on it to try to achieve real change. Maybe, just maybe, they can tell you something you don’t know. Yet it clearly has not occurred to you that they have more to teach you about this issue.
You have not apologised at all, and how can you? You appear not to have understood the issue. We hope you will enter into discussions with Equity as you promise, and that you will genuinely try to educate yourself on this topic. You will have the perfect opportunity tomorrow on opening night.
Update 24.1.17: Anna Chen has a compendium of updates and links for further exploration at her blog Madam Miaow Says.