I joined 200 people on Thursday 19 January for #StopYellowFace: a protest against the racist casting of In the Depths of Dead Love at the Print Room.
It was cold. Good lord, it was cold. But this wasn’t something I was going to welch out on easily. Given that being half-Chinese myself, this protest was more than about confronting an inexcusable decision in a genre I love, but also about standing up for my heritage. In the Depths of Dead Love and the Print Room HAD to be brought to account for their yellowface casting, and I wasn’t going to let others who had joined the growing cacophony down because a hot-water bottle was beginning to look like a tempting bedfellow. It wouldn’t be too cold, though, would it? After all, I did live in Manchester for five years, so I could cope with this, right?
I went armed with my trusty GoPro, tripod, and microphone to try and capture some of the thoughts and feelings of those at the protest; not just Andrew Keates who had organised it, and Daniel York, one of the dissenters whose voice has been very prominent, but people, actors, and supporters I hadn’t met before. They’re just as important to hear, if not more important, than the guff I’ve been blowing out recently.
When I arrived it was still early: about 5:30pm. There were probably about 50 people milling about, in high spirits. I, being ever the pessimist, thought that this would be my company for the rest of the evening, and was quite content with the quantity. But by 6:30pm, an hour before curtain up for press night of In the Depths of Dead Love, the #StopYellowFace protest was in full swing and much bigger than I ever thought it would be.
If the Print Room was expecting us to be small in numbers and go unnoticed, they had made a grave error in judgement.
Keates and other fellow organisers estimate that around 200 people joined us over the course of the #StopYellowFace protest: and it certainly felt it. Being in the throng behind the barricade, although densely packed, was actually preferred to being outside of its warm compactness: a GCSE physics experiment involving penguins sprang to mind. But what was clear was that this wasn’t some fringe protest at some fringe theatre: this was a sizable crowd of people that had come to say “NO” to the erasure of East Asians in theatre and yellowface casting, and our number was far far greater than the amount of people who went through the theatre’s doors.
And what a prestigious crowd it was too. Benedict Wong, who played Bruce Ng in The Martian and Wong in Doctor Stranger, was there. Katie Leung who played Cho Chang in the Harry Potter films, was there. Gemma Chan who’s appeared in Doctor Who, Sherlock, Fresh Meet, and is the face of Humans, was there. Not to mention some fantastic allies too, like playwright Anders Lustgarten who wrote the incredible Shrapnel: 34 Fragments of a Massacre, and TV and Royal Shakespeare Company actor Debbie Korley who blew me away in Cargo, among many many others.
The coverage we received was unparalleled too. We were live on BBC News London, ITV also covered us, as well as the Evening Standard. This was on top of coverage that had already gone out in the Daily Mail, on BBC Radio 4, and on BBC Radio 5. If the Print Room was expecting us to be small in numbers and go unnoticed, they had made a grave error in judgement. This was not the grumbles of a few complaining over a non-issue, this was something that meant something, and were going to be heard, and people were helping us be louder than ever.
Dim Sum, Sing Songs, and Spit
[Audiences members came] out specifically to insult and belittle us just because they felt they had the entitlement to do so.
The protest, for the first four hours, was fun and peaceful. Wong led everyone in a sing song, with songs like “Give Peace a Chance” (with lyrics change to “Give East a chance”), “Don’t You Want Me”, and most humorously, Coldplay’s “Yellow”. Papergang Theatre also handed out hot dim sum to protesters halfway through the protest to keep up energy, spirits and warmth. It was a great, jovial show of solidarity on an issue that, deep down, upset and angered us all.
Unfortunately, it didn’t stay that way, and the tone changed as audience members from In the Depths of Dead Love left the theatre. We had actually cheered the first few who emerged, who gave us an awkward smile in return, but others weren’t that polite. Blanche Marvin, a 90-odd year old actor and theatre critic who also set-up the Empty Space Peter Brook Award, waddle up to us, decked in animal fur, and started accusing us of being racist. We hadn’t yelled at her or insulted her as she stepped out the theatre, but she had taken it on herself, and believed she had the right, to antagonise us. Marvin even justified casting white actors in black roles, saying that this was Equity’s line on the matter (I’m sure it isn’t, but have asked them for clarification none the less). Then she returned into the theatre, clearly having come out to us just to provoke us.
Others did the same, coming out specifically to insult and belittle us just because they felt they had the entitlement to do so, before heading back in for some more free booze: almost all of them were white and privileged. The worst that happened was an audience member that repeatedly called York a “cunt” and proceed to spit at him. Apparently, that’s our lot for standing up for ourselves, and having the audacity to challenge racist casting in 2017.
We might be yellow-faced, but we certainly aren’t yellow-bellied.
I left a little earlier than most. Filming and taking photos outside of the paddock meant that, after the shameful confrontations, I couldn’t tell if I was shaking with pure rage, or shivering from the below freezing temperatures. Either way, I couldn’t feel my toes anymore. So, I went to the pub with Laura Kressley, co-founder of the Network of Independent Critics and owner of theatre blog The Play’s the Thing, who had helped raise the profile of the #StopYellowFace issue by allowing York to write his views as a guest. We thawed out over a pint. Soon, Keates, York, and many other protesters joined us. But the mood was sullen rather than jubilant. The hideous vitriol we had been bombarded with marred what had otherwise been a fun night.
Although dejected and completely knackered when I left and went to bed, the next morning I had messages from friends telling me how proud they were of me: some of whom I hadn’t spoken to for ages. Another posted a wonderful screen capture from the BBC New London coverage of #StopYellowFace, lovingly mocking for me looking grumpy as sin (I wasn’t trying to look that miserable, honest), and messages of support and admiration on the protest’s Facebook event page poured in from friends of other protesters. This was followed by superb photos taken by Papergang Theatre, and fantastic video documentaries from individuals like Georgie Donovan, that capture the camaraderie, passion, and hope that we had. If anything, the protest didn’t dampen our spirits as it had initially, but ultimately emboldened our efforts.
We all sincerely hope we don’t have to have another protest like this, especially so soon after many of those attending the #StopYellowFace protest had also protested the Royal Shakespeare Company’s predominantly white casting of The Orphan of Zhao. But if we have to, you can bet your bottom dollar that we will again, no matter what unpleasantness we might be subjected to again.
We might be yellow-faced, but we certainly aren’t yellow-bellied.
For more information on the #StopYellowFace movement, visit www.facebook.com/consciouscasting.