The "Orphan of Zhao," a story of a boy who realizes his adopted father killed his entire clan, is often referred to as "Chinese Hamlet." So when a recent casting of the piece by the Royal Shakespeare Company hired only three east Asian actors in a cast of 17, the decision raised quite a few eyebrows in the UK.
The lack of Asian representation in theater is not a recent issue and isn't limited to England, however. A piece earlier this year in the New York Times showed that Asians, even more than other minorities, are dramatically underrepresented in theatrical productions: "Over the past five theater seasons Asian-American actors were cast in two percent of the roles in Broadway and major Off Broadway productions, while 80 percent of the roles went to white performers, 13 percent to black actors, and four percent to Hispanic artists."
In a play designed for Chinese characters, the bias seems to reach absurd levels of discrimination. Daniel York, a member of Equity's Minority Ethnic Artists’ Committee, has called for an apology from the RSC as well as a public forum discussing the burdens East Asian actors face in the acting world. York told The Stage: "This exclusion has been going on for far too long within the British stage and film industries. Colour-blind casting is a wonderful concept, unfortunately, it’s all one-way traffic. Something has to change. We are asking for fairness and a level playing field."
In response to the public's disapproving statements on Facebook and Twitter, the RSC's artistic director Gregory Doran and executive director Catherine Mallyon responded in a statement: "We do recognise that the lack of visibility for Chinese and East Asian actors in theatre and on screen is a live and very serious issue. We are beginning the process of talking to industry colleagues, representing employers and actors, to set up a forum for wider debate which we hope will make a meaningful difference." According to The Guardian, Doran had auditioned "lots and lots" of east Asian actors for the production, and made offers that were turned down. (York responded saying that "lots and lots" means eight east Asian actors, according to his findings.)
Yesterday York published a statement visible on My Asian Planet, stating the problem as far greater than a single casting decision from a respected company:
"British East Asian actors wish to participate in their own culture but this is being denied us. We are too often excluded from roles which are not East Asian-specific, yet when roles arise that are, we are also excluded. We applaud colour-blind casting, but colour-blind casting was created as a mechanism to afford more opportunities for all minority actors, not to give additional opportunities to Caucasian actors. At present, colour-blind casting fails British East Asians."
Do you think east Asian actors deserve an apology for the casting choices made by the RSC and other theaters? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.
In the meantime, enjoy the slideshow below: