“Yellowface”, and Welsh Theatre’s Diversity Problem

Recently Music Theatre Wales has come under fire for their production of The Golden Dragon for a lack of diversity in its casting, the production being singled out for a lack of East Asian performers cast for a show set in a Chinese restaurant. The show as been attacked by some, and defended by others, but what this certainly does is shine a light on the issue of a wider diversity problem in Welsh theatre.

The condemnation of Music Theatre Wales has come from some notable figures in the industry, including the artistic director of Yellow Earth Theatre, Kumiko Mendl, who said the production was “another frankly disappointing and incomprehensible case of yellowface”. The opera, by Peter Eotvos, based on a play by Roland Schimmelpfennig, has a cast of five who perform multiple roles that include “Chinese mother”, “Chinese aunt”, “Old Asian”, and “An Asian”. The company, via a statement on Facebook, responded that the nature of the production meant that these descriptions were not to be taken literally: “The setting is a pan-Asian restaurant and the singers play a variety of roles, genders and nationalities. Two air hostesses are played by burly men; a cricket is played by a tenor, an ant by a mezzo and a small boy by a grown woman.” They go on to say; “The original play, and the opera on which it is based, is post-Brechtian storytelling: the cast narrate the story and introduce the multiple characters they are about to play. Quite deliberately, there is no realism.”

The treatment of East Asian Characters in theatre has already been the centre of a storm this year, when Print Room’s production of Howard Barker’s In the Depths of Dead Love, which is also set in China, featured an all-white cast. Print Room responded to criticism in a similar manner to Music Theatre Wales, claiming the play’s setting was not to be taken literally. They said at the time that the production “references a setting in Ancient China and the characters’ names are Chinese.” The venue claims Barker made these choices as “literary allusions” and they were “never intended to be taken literally.” Take aside arguments for the moment that both Print Room and Music Theatre Wales have at best displayed tone-deaf approaches to casting; what is really striking is that both missed fantastic opportunities to create work that not only represents a more diverse population, but also engages with important cultural issues connected to race.

Wales has an issue with diversity in theatre. The Welsh stage is shockingly white; but if the visible aspect of theatre is that way, it betrays a larger problem across our creative sector. This has an impact beyond a simple ticking of boxes to reach Welsh Government attainment goals; it is a failure of a responsibility to Welsh audiences, who are neither represented nor encouraged into the theatre. And even the programmers of theatres are guilty here. Abdul Shayek, artistic director of FIO, recently said in an interview with Wales Arts Review, that he struggled to get venues to book the tour of his production of The Mountaintop, an award-winning play about the last hours of Martin Luther King Jnr. Quite simply we aren’t telling stories that reflect a modern Wales if we continue to be almost uniformly White in the industry.

It is the responsibility of casting directors, directors, theatre companies and artistic directors to include non-White actors in their work. It would take minutes to conduct a Twitter survey asking if BAME actors feel excluded from theatre. So how quickly also could a call be put out on social media asking for actors from BAME backgrounds to express an interest in auditioning? These actors should be seen anyway. But if the ‘old’ ways of agents and casting directors are failing theatres – and they clearly are – then it is up to directors to find new ways. Claiming that these actors aren’t there to be cast is frankly a lazy and out-dated excuse.

Diversity in Welsh theatre goes beyond the issue of race. Add to that gender and class and you have the three key issues. We might have an incredibly white theatre here in Wales, but our whole spectrum of diversity needs looking at to move things forward. We can’t simply diversify on one issue alone, we have to be making theatre that accurately reflects our nation.

In terms of class, we are telling more stories beyond the middle classes. Gary Owen’s work (and use of a female protagonist) has made strides here, as has NTW/Common Wealth with We’re Still Here. Meanwhile, in terms of access, the Sherman 5 scheme has made huge inroads into diversifying audiences and engagement with theatre. But how many from working-class backgrounds are working at higher levels in the industry?

In terms of gender disparity, on one hand, we have a trio of women heading up theatres in Wales: Kully Thiarai at National Theatre Wales, Rachel O’Riordan at Sherman and Tamara Harvey at Clwyd (and until recently Kate Wasserberg at The Other Room). Comparative to other areas of the UK, that’s very impressive, and we also have many talented female directors working in Wales. However, none of the current Artistic Directors are Welsh, which raises the question are we bringing women ‘up the ranks’ effectively? Why are we recruiting for our top positions from outside of Wales?

But it is the issue of race that stares us in the face when we look at our theatre. If you can count the number of BAME performers on your fingers currently on Welsh stages there is an issue.

We need to re-think the way we bring people in to our theatre in Wales in every respect. This rests with the decision makers at the top – from the Artistic Directors to the funders. But there’s not one catchall solution for fixing Wales’ diversity problem. With the barriers to diversity in terms of race, come barriers in terms of socio-economic background, of gender associated with both factors. Modern Wales is a diverse nation, quite simply our theatre needs to reflect that. There are no excuses.