In the wake of the controversial call by some members of the Welsh theatrical community for National Theatre Wales to change its ways, Jafar Iqbal asks if such passion could be deployed as effectively in other areas.
The current big debate surrounding National Theatre Wales is far from over, and is likely, rightly, to become a debate about the state of Welsh theatre as a whole. NTW’s Artistic Director Kully Thiarai has suggested this wider conversation herself in the recent Chippy Lane’s Podcast. It’s a conversation that needs time, patience and care. Every day, I’m struck by how many different directions and tangents this conversation has gone in already. One step forward, four steps back, three steps to the left, two steps forward, one step to the right. It sounds like a poorly choreographed dance routine and feels like one too.
Somehow, by some bizarre twist of fate, we seem to have created a microcosm of global chaos. Opinions and theories are being treated as fact, while actual facts are ignored. Should these important conversations be happening? Absolutely; but a fact has to be separated from conjecture and speaking in absolutes is not the answer. Before we argue about things that might be true, we need to show that we’re capable of dealing with actual, hard fact. We had the opportunity to do that earlier this year, and we failed.
Cast your minds back to January 2018. The Golden Dragon was nominated for a Wales Theatre Award, despite the very public controversy surrounding its use of yellowface. Music Theatre Wales, under enormous pressure, deserves credit for the way they dealt with the fallout and offered public commitment to improve their understanding and consequent vision and practices. The lessons MTW learned came at a cost, but learn them they did. What about the rest of the Welsh theatre world?
On the evidence of the makeup of the Wales Theatre Awards, there are critics living and working in Wales today who thought the use of yellowface in that production was okay. That is an absolute truth. Their smaller pool of ‘expert’ judges saw the show’s inclusion in the nominations made by a wider pool of contributors and, knowing how contentious it was, could have quietly removed it. But they also felt that yellowface wasn’t grounds for an intervention. The show was put in the final ballot and, in doing so, those leading decision-makers turned the use of yellowface from controversy to a celebration.
Fast forward to February, on the eve of the 2018 ceremony. An open letter was sent to the organisers of the Wales Theatre Awards, asking them to acknowledge and/or reconsider their stance. That open letter was met with hostility from the organisation that runs the awards. A long statement defending their decision was initially posted on the Wales Theatre Awards website and was subsequently taken down. I won’t try and paraphrase what was said because, of course, that would be conjecture. However, a comment was left at the bottom of that page, also by the organisers, stating that allegations made in regards to the diversity debate were ‘so obviously plain silly they do not deserve a response’. The Wales Theatre Awards openly and publicly declared that they were not interested in engaging with the wider community about a controversy they had created.
Artists and organisations began discussing the idea of boycotting the awards, in solidarity. As far as I have been able to ascertain only National Theatre Wales and Torch Theatre publicly declared that they wouldn’t attend, and they didn’t. There were stories about people claiming they weren’t going to go and then showing up. There were stories about people claiming to go as a means of protest, though there were no stories of the organisation being challenged on the night. Who knows, it’s conjecture. What we do know is that the awards ceremony went ahead as planned. It was well-attended and was reported as a “success” by the organisers themselves (depending on how you define that term – I would argue there were no victories for race relations formed that evening). There are artists in Wales who chose to attend a ceremony that their peers and their community had identified as being deeply offensive. There is no getting away from that fact.
And then… nothing. For quite a while, actually. Sure, memories of that situation haven’t gone away and there is still a lot of anger and resentment over what happened. But accountability? Responsibility? Provocation? None. The WTA organisers are still very much a part of the art world. We still invite them to our press nights, we welcome them into our venues and we pretend that their celebration of yellowface never happened. The people involved in the Wales Theatre Awards undermined an entire community, brushed it under the carpet, and we let them do it.
We failed the BAME community, both in the arts and the wider community. Why would artists from ethnic minority backgrounds want to engage with Welsh theatre now, when such offensive behaviour has gone largely unchallenged? We failed other underrepresented communities too. How could a member of the disabled community see what happened at the Wales Theatre Awards and be sure that they won’t be demeaned or vilified in the same way? Or the LGBTQIA+ community? Or the working-class community? Or any other protected community? We failed our audiences and we failed ourselves.
So many of us have become a part of the conversation about National Theatre Wales and, both publicly or privately, we’ve shared our opinions on it. These conversations will go on for a long time. And yet, when members of our arts community celebrated racism, the talk died down within a month. We had the power nine months ago to show everyone that such irresponsible arrogance was unacceptable – and we chose to do nothing. We chose to show the world that we would accept racism in return for a few awards and a good night out. Artists, theatre companies, venues, critics, the media, funders, promoters, Arts Council Wales, Welsh Government – it doesn’t matter how much or how little we did individually to fix things; as a collective, we all failed.
Jafar Iqbal is a theatre critic and an associate editor of Wales Arts Review.