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Asian Theatre Whitewash

Asian Theatre Whitewash

January 22, 2012

The actors are brown (most of the time) but those producing the plays aren't. Should it matter?

Last week, The Guardian’s theatre blog asked if theatre was by white people, for white people.

Referencing a piece by an American university lecturer who teaches theatre arts, the original piece used statistics from a survey of Broadway audiences as the basis for its argument, that theatre, all of it, is a white art form.

Ignoring how plays like East is East or the more recent Bollywood Trip attract mainly Asian audiences, or that musicals like Fela attract equal numbers of black theatregoers, it is true that theatre’s core demographic is mostly white, middle-class and 30-plus. Which might be why, no matter what the play, this audience is rarely far from a theatre company’s mind: even a play such as Bollywood Trip, hinged loosely on the mind state of its disoriented Hindi film star, is really about his white doctor’s love life. This would go some way to explain why the majority of theatre companies have all-white staffs. But it doesn’t explain why the same is true for the outfits whose purpose is to produce plays for and about Asian audiences. Shouldn’t it be different for them?

This isn’t to say non-Asians can’t play a worthwhile part in Asian culture, or offer an interesting perspective on it – this site is proof that outsider perspectives are valuable. And expecting large swathes of Asian or black staff in an industry ruled largely, and protectively, by white, middle class women is probably a fool’s errand. But expecting a few brown faces in companies supposedly committed to the stories of these communities shouldn’t be asking too much.

Take a trip to the offices of BBC World Service, and each department dedicated to a different corner of the globe has employees from those regions. They are skilled in their field but they are also familiar with the culture. Venture through the offices of any London-based Asian theatre company however, and you might struggle to tell the difference between them and their white equivalents. Tokenistic diversity initiatives have always seemed doomed to fail, but these are places that might do well to give them a go. While Asian theatre organisations are needed and at their best, reveal a world not often seen on the boards of England’s theatres, it’s worth considering whether a shift in the makeup of those deciding what happens behind the stage – whether as commissioners, directors, or producers - could have a positive effect on what plays on it, and how.

In 2012, British Asian stories are more varied than ever. We have the narratives of those who have settled, and the newer tales of those still making that process - the new Asian migrants. With immigration never off the news agenda, the process of their assimilation, both with second and third generation Asians and the broader populous, is as fertile for drama as it’s ever been. The old guard who have won establishment acceptance say the old identity wars have been won, but in truth, the battle lines have just become more nuanced. They deserve new responses. Marriage, gender, racism, religion, identity; they might seem like hackneyed dramatic fodder, but they still play a role in our lives, if not in the same way they used to. And they are still ripe for fresh artistic interpretation. They just need people calling the shots who are able to see this.

With TV only able to serve up clueless notions of ‘diverse’ Britain and the UK film industry generally uninterested in stories that reflect the country as it is, rather than was, maybe it’s up to theatre - even in the most conservative arts climate in decades - to take up the mantle. Shouldn’t Asian theatre address these changing realities? Writers getting their hands dirty with the places these stories are taking place is one way to do this. But what’s also needed is a shakeup both behind and in front of the scenes. Don’t Asians – those with an understanding of the stage and an insight into the communities they come from - deserve to make the decisions as well as accept them? 

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