A couple of years ago I attended an Artistic Directors of the Future (ADF) event at the Young Vic where Madani Younis was the keynote speaker. As usual Madani was impassioned and inspiring. He also paid tribute to an impressive list of “black and Asian” theatre makers/writers that had inspired him-Derek Walcott, Hanif Kureishi, Winsome Pinnock, Parv Bancil, Roy Williams, Sudha Buchar, Tanika Gupta, Ayub Khan Din -the list went on and on and on.
But not one single solitary East Asian writer or theatre-maker was mentioned.
ADF is an initiative begun by director Simeilia Hodge-Dalloway. Like Madani, Simeilia’s knowledge of British and international playwrights of colour is encyclopedic. She even compiled an anthology: Audition Speeches for Black, South Asian and Middle Eastern Actors: Monologues for Men/Women
Again, not one solitary East Asian writer there.
I could have pointed out that Porcelain by Chay Yew was missing. A tortured powerful piece of racial-sexual angst set in the anonymous gay sex scene of 1990’s London, I was lucky enough to launch my acting career playing the protagonist, John Lee, a role that afforded me the privilege of portraying a lyricism, wit, vulnerability and ultimately murderous rage rare in portrayals of British East Asians in UK drama to the point of virtual non-existence.
In truth though, pointing out this omission would’ve felt like grasping at racial straws. The horrible almost unspeakable truth is that British East Asian writers have historically been unable to contribute virtually anything of note to UK theatre. Even Chay Yew was a Singaporean who passed through Britain briefly on route to the US. There was the odd compelling drama written by a white person, the occasional fringe production seen by a handful of people, there were even one or two writers who described themselves as “British Chinese” but they didn’t appear to want to inconvenience their commissioners by forcing them to actually cast some East Asian actors as protagonists in the drama. But really, nothing very much of note that you could imagine being revived now to the kind of fanfare Winsome Pinnock’s Leave Taking was recently at the Bush.
The harsh and uncomfortable truth is that British East Asians have no canon.
I only have theories as to why. Theatre sounds simple: someone writes a play, you get some actors and you put it on. In actuality theatre is an industry with layers and layers of gatekeepers that you have to navigate, impress, convince and (occasionally I’m afraid) deceive in order to get your play into a hallowed privileged space where anyone other than your immediate family and friends will actually see it.
It goes without saying that these gatekeepers have tended to be white and middle-class. Historically those gatekeepers, perhaps understandably feeling out of their depth with writers of colour, have palmed the responsibility for diverse voices onto BAME gatekeepers empowered by public funds to effectively police their own community. Benjamin Zephaniah spoke once about “beneficiaries of the race industry”. And, again, it is very much a race industry. The level of power the BAME gatekeeper could accrue inside their own community was enormous and in stark contrast to the indifference often afforded voices of that community by the British theatre mainstream.
There has been various schemes and initiatives to engage British East Asian writers though . I’ve been on one or two and listened there to prospective British East Asian playwrights asking “but do I have to write about East Asian characters?”
In that one question you can see the literal swamp of “otherness” that East Asians are traditionally mired in. We ourselves often don’t even see ourselves as naturalised protagonists. We sometimes appear so hypnotised by TV we’d apparently rather try and write a role for Stephen Mangan than create an opportunity for a British East Asian actor.
One theatre I was working with staged one of my short plays. In the breakdown I’d written “any ethnicity” next to every single character. When it came to casting the white director gave me a list of actors, all of whom had worked with the theatre before and all of whom were white. I told the director I wasn’t comfortable with that. In the end I got two British East Asians in a cast of four. It was a difficult conversation and I don’t know how many other writers would be willing to put themselves through it.
Since 2012 and the infamous RSC Orphan of Zhao casting protest, which I contest changed British theatre for ever (call me paranoid but we don’t even get much credit for that!), we’ve seen a veritable proliferation of British East Asian writers. I don’t even want to list any for fear I’ll miss someone and cause offence. We also seem to have at last cottoned on to the fact that we’re far more interesting when we’re putting East Asian characters on the stage than trying to be an off-colour version of Lucy Kirkwood or whatever.
I’m still haunted by our lack of legacy though. I don’t want to see young British East Asian kids, entranced by the stage and screen as I was, lacking the dramatic vehicle or platform that other ethnicities now have. I don’t want to see those kids trying to pretend to be white or desperately feeding off the orientalised scraps TV occasionally flings them in order to build a profile. I want to see those kids having a body of work that they can own and feel proud of, where they can tell their own stories in their own narratives. Where they get to live, love and liberate on stage in bold, urgent and attractive ways.
That’s what I aim for as a British East Asian writer. It’s a mission that engulfs, fires and terrifies me. And I daren’t even talk to other British East Asian writers about it.
I do kind of worry they’d think I was mad.
Daniel York Loh is a mixed-race British East Asian actor, writer, filmmaker and musician. As an actor he has appeared at the RSC, National Theatre and Royal Court, as well as in the feature films The Beach and Rogue Trader. His award-winning short films have been seen in major film festivals internationally. He was an alumni of the 2012 Royal Court Studio Writers’ group and the 2013 Orange Tree Writers’ Collective. His first full-length play, The Fu Manchu Complex, ran at Ovalhouse in 2013 and was directed by Justin Audibert. It has recently been published in the Aurora Metro British East Asian collection. He has had short plays staged at The Bush, Royal Court, Orange Tree, Theatre Royal Stratford East and Rich Mix. Along with composer Craig Adams, he won the 2016 Perfect Pitch award to create an original stage musical, Sinking Water, based on events around the 2004 Morecambe Bay Chinese cockle-picker tragedy, which was subsequently developed under commission by Theatre Royal Stratford East. He is one of 21 writers of colour featured in the collection of essays, The Good Immigrant, which won the 2016 Books Are My Bag Reader’s Choice award.
His play Forgotten 遗忘, based on the experiences of the World War One Chinese Labour Corps, will play at the Arcola Theatre in London https://www.arcolatheatre.com/event/forgotten/ and Theatre Royal Plymouth in October and November 2018 https://www.theatreroyal.com/whats-on/2018/forgotten