The world will never be the same
A while back I had a meeting with the lovely people of Resonate to discuss coming on board as one of their writers. My first piece for Resonate was going to be about the importance of representation in the arts. I’d been mulling over this article what to include, source material; all this in between other current work commitment and then this…
To quote Erin Quill, actress, tireless advocate for diversity, equality and Asian American Artists in the US; as well as being a global supporter of artists of colour for equal rights, equality and better representation.
“There has been much to say on both sides, but let us be clear- the Cast did not boo. The Cast quieted the people booing- who were in the audience. For those who say that this goes against theater tradition- you are wrong. As a theater scholar- you are incorrect and you should educate yourself.” Erin Quill November 2016
If one needed an example, of why in a post-war, post-colonial, so-called modern world, the arts, culture and specifically theatre is needed; then I could not conceived of a finer example than this post show address by the a lead cast member of the hit production Hamilton.
“We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us. All of us. Again, we truly thank you truly for seeing this show, this wonderful American story told by a diverse group of men and women of different colors, creeds and orientations.”
This statement was read the one of the shows lead actors, Brandon Victor Dixon.
Erin Quill reminds us that this is what theatre is for. Theatre is not (or should not be) an elitist pastime.
“For those who say that this goes against theater tradition- you are wrong. As a theater scholar- you are incorrect and you should educate yourself.”
“This is a tradition from Ireland- which is the ‘Noble Call’ in which a person either of the cast or invited guest addresses the audience on political topics of the day. After the show.”
“Some may recall Panti Bliss addressing LGBTQ issues a few years ago in Dublin. Irish theater tradition is older than the USA- and many of our greatest plays come from their writers, as do many of our finest actors. Ireland has been politically divided for hundreds of years, and they could just as well stop breathing as to stop being political.”
“Thus, ‘The Noble Call'”
“It is the truest and most genuine use of theatrical opportunities and it is to be commended.” Erin Quill November 2016
Theatre is not some disembodied socially elite entertainment activity. Though with the rising prices for, even fringe theatre shows in the London and the UK, make it seem very much an indulgence that only those with a generous disposable income can afford.
Theatre is more than props, costumes and bright lights.
Seeing numerous photographs of cheering students and diverse young adult audiences who have watched Hamilton, these are the faces of the American future. The educators, scientist, business men and women and, yes even politicians. Hamilton, a modern show about the founding fathers, that has a majority cast of Black and Latino artists, combines both past and present, into an artistic relevance and accessibility for today’s modern, diverse and poly ethnic American society.
So the act of sitting in the dark next to strangers to watch actors speak other people’s words, pretending to be people that they are not, suddenly takes on a life and a real meaning for those in the auditorium. It isn’t museum Theatre, it isn’t performance of an historic archive, it becomes something vibrant, current and accessible. It’s speaking and talking to people who exist now, about those that have gone before and how what has happened still has meaning for us today.
And please don’t think that just because I’m writing about an American show, that this is not pertinent to us here in the UK. If anything in this post-Brexit limbo that the UK now finds itself with frightening similarities to the corrosive and toxic rhetoric of the Trump presidential campaign; the UK is not off the hook. It has experienced its own rise in racist, hate crimes and acts of unprovoked violence based on prejudicial, anti-religious or homophobic viewpoints. We are not immune.
It is now more than ever that Britain needs to be experiencing the same artistic innovation that Hamilton has created.
We need to see on our mainstream stages, artists of all ethnic backgrounds, being and representing people. People that in reality they would never be. Not so long ago seeing more than one or two British East Asians (BEA) in a theatre audience would have been rare. But since the “East Asian Summer-Autumn” of 2013 things have changed considerably.
The Arrest of Ai Weiwei by Howard Brenton, Chimerica by Lucy Kirkwood, The Fu Manchu Complex by Daniel York-Loh, Yellow Face and Golden Child by David Henry Hwang and World of Extreme Happiness by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig exposed the myths that a) “normal” audiences wouldn’t pay to see plays about East Asia or with East Asian casts b) there are not enough British East Asian actors good enough to cast in such mainstream shows.
Well, those myths (along with quite a few more) were blown out of the water.
People will pay to go and see such plays. So much so that Chimerica transferred to the West end. And the mainstream theatrical community (Casting Directors, Producers and Theatre Directors still haven’t scratched the surface, when it comes to the British East Asian acting talent available.
So why is there such a lack of enthusiasm and support from the wider BEA community when it comes to supporting its own artists, specifically actors?
Partly I suspect its tradition. Acting is not a profession that a family with traditional East Asian cultural views would want their children to enter into. Particularly for daughters. For some with traditional views, that’s just one step up from being a prostitute.
Also it’s a notoriously unstable occupation, whatever your heritage or ethnic lineage, acting is not for the faint-hearted. But unlike other British minorities who vigorously support their artist, (British Black African Caribbean and South Asians for example) taking pride in their achievements, the wider East Asian community seem almostlaissez-fairee about it. Happy to celebrate when someone becomes famous i.e. David Yip, but other than that, the wider East Asian community doesn’t really want to, or gives the appearance that they don’t want to get involved with the arts. We lag far behind fellow British minorities as they have at least come to be accepted by the majority as, British.
East Asians are still considered by many as the outsider, the foreigner, the “other.” And in the current political and social climate this is a worrying state of affairs.
We have not helped ourselves in this regard. We do not protest, we do not public challenge the myriad of continuous racist and prejudicial representations that continue to be broadcast and staged. If we do not tell people that we find things offensive, then these offences will continue to be perpetrated. Because it looks as if we don’t care, that it doesn’t matter to us. But actually it does and it has a knock on affect. What happens in the media is often taken my some in the wider society as a green light to emulate such behaviours.
We all love it when we see someone that mirrors our own likeness on stage, TV or in film – but as a community we don’t really want to get involved in assisting our artists to get to the top of the ladder. We want to reap the benefits, but not to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty. We are at a, cross road, nationally and internationally.
I don’t think that we as British East Asians, now have a choice. If we want to avoid and repel the extremist (from which ever flank they come from) and preserve our freedoms and uphold our rights to equal treatment and inclusivity, then we have to start pressing for greater involvement in our own culture in the country that we all live in.
This means that the wider BEA community as well as EA involved in the creative sector have to become engaged. Have to start participating on a far broader scale than has hitherto been entered into.
Theatre is not just about entertainment; it’s about entering into an ongoing conversation – otherwise why bother?
Theatre is about communication and exploration. Theatre is about us as human beings and how we can make sense of our environments, how we learn from the actions of the past to inform and help us make better decisions for our future
If we as British East Asians want true equality and inclusivity then we have to engage fully. We have to involve ourselves, with not just our own communities but with other, ethnic, diverse, communities and that of the wider society. It does not mean we lose that which we value, that which is unique to us, more that we use that uniqueness to enhance the fact that we too are British. That we too live in and are part of this country.
The Producers, Casting Directors and Theatre Directors they too also have to full engage with us and get to know us beyond the handful of East Asian actors that they feel safe with. Similarly, the gatekeepers, purse string holders and those that have access to real substantive funding have to open out and open up to the wealth of unused and consistently ignored British East Asian writing talent. Being crass, a British East Asian Hamilton, whilst possible is unlikely because the mainstream is not invested and not truly engaged with the British East Asian Artist and will not be until we are accepted as being both British and East Asian.