East Asian Actors Protest RSC Casting over Chinese Play

November 2, 2012

The Orphan of Zhao (2010 Chinese Film)

The Orphan of Zhao (2010 Chinese Film)

The recent controversy over the Royal Shakespeare Company’s casting of the play Orphan of Zhao has sparked an online debate about the complexities of casting minority actors.

Although the anger of the Chinese and other East Asian actors is understandable, the issue carries more shades of grey underneath the black and white.

The fact that the RSC is doing Orphan of Zhao is a triumph. It shows a great interests in Asian culture and history. In the context of a non-racially biased society, the race and ethnicity of the cast members is by definition irrelevant, and it’s the opportunity for pure cultural exchange and understanding that matters. For this, I believe both the West and the East will benefit.

We can’t assume that a production of Romeo and Juliet in China is not true to Shakespeare, simply because it has no Western actors in it.

However, there is a total lack of East Asian actors in Western TV, film and plays. Most Asian actors who do appear are British, yet they are hardly ever casted as anything but a sterotypical Asian person.

We need to make a protest, but it must be for the right purpose and from a right angle. It’s important to note that making misleading protests when others are stepping out of their comfort zone makes them less likely to do so again.

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10 Responses to “East Asian Actors Protest RSC Casting over Chinese Play”

  1. Daniel York Says:

    It’s difficult to follow your line of argument if I’m entirely honest. There are actors of East Asian descent in Britain. Good ones. Surely they deserve and opportunity outside of “stereotypical” ones as you say.

  2. Jennifer Lim Says:

    I’m afraid I don’t quite follow your argument that the ‘in the context of a non-racially biased society, the race and ethnicity of the cast members is by definition irrelevant, and it’s the opportunity for pure cultural exchange and understanding that matters.’ Fact of the matter is, the UK isn’t a non-racially biased society. In the context of the production, the RSC has appropriated the culture of a community and resolutely refuses to integrate actors from the community in its casting decisions. I take it that you’re from China. Are you happy to see Chinese/East Asian actors playing second fiddlers to Caucasian actors in a play of their culture and heritage?

    On the whole I find your article incoherent and confusing.

    • Jin Aowen Says:

      Are you happy to see films and plays of Shakespeare made in Asia with only Asian actors? Does it mean the play is not authentic because they are not played by Caucasian actors? I believe it’s not about people who act in it, but to understand and share a different culture.

      I am never happy to see Chinese/East Asian actors playing second fiddlers to Caucasian actors in general. I believe minority actors should be given more general roles for any RSC plays, I think we should ask why these talented people don’t have leading roles in Western plays as well.

      • Jennifer Lim Says:

        Shakespeare films and plays made in Asia are often set in Asia and adapted to an Asian setting. The ‘Orphan of Zhao’ has Chinese costumes and set in China. It’s like watching ’55 Days of Peking’ all over again!

        The same question has been asked and has resulted in the RSC acknowledging that there IS a problem.

        I think you’re missing the point – we’re not insisting that all the cast members in ‘Orphan’ be East Asian, just that some of the leading parts are played by Chinese/East Asian actors and hence because of the casting policy at the RSC where the line of parts are consistent in all three plays, they would also end up playing protagonists in ‘Boris Gudonov’ and ‘Galileo’. As it is, none of the three East Asian performers in the current RSC season end up leading roles in any of the three plays.

        Ideally it would be great if there was a genuine ‘cultural exchange’ going on but as it happens, it looks more like cultural appropriation than exchange.

      • Jin Aowen Says:

        Then we should ask the question why Asian actors are not in leading roles in Boris Gudonov and Galileo as much as the Orphan of Zhao.

  3. Daniel York Says:

    How come your blog doesn’t let you see other people’s comments? Bit misleading isn’t it?

  4. Daniel York Says:

    Jin, the difference with Shakespeare in China is that there is no caucasian immigrant community there that has grown up alongside Chinese people speaking mandarin. If there was I would expect them to be represented. A better comparison is with Singapore, an East Asian country with a thriving English language theatre scene where the stages are populated with Chinese, Malay, Indian, Eurasian, Filipina and (yes) Caucasian actors ingtermingled.

    Further to this, the Shakespeare productions I’ve seen in China feature Chinese actors in Chinese costumes in Chinese settings with Chinese music often using Chinese theatre traditions. In other words they’ve taken the text and used it in their own setting unlike the RSC who are clearly impersonating “China”.

    • Jin Aowen Says:

      I have seen plenty Shakespeare plays in China where everything looked Western apart from the actors were Chinese and they spoke Chinese. Why is it so bad to ‘impersonate’ culture anyway? That could always be the starting point to spread culture. That is how Shakespeare is so well known in many other countries. At the beginning, other cultures try to understand by ‘impersonation’, but as understanding progresses, we see more variety in modern versions of Shakespeare – not only in the West but also in Asia too.

      ‘the difference with Shakespeare in China is that there is no caucasian immigrant community there that has grown up alongside Chinese people speaking mandarin. If there was I would expect them to be represented.’ I want to let you know that there are many people from other countries who work and have families in China because of the economic boom. There are more and more Western stars on Chinese TV because their understanding of Chinese culture is excellent and they themselves are talented.

  5. Daniel York Says:

    “I am never happy to see Chinese/East Asian actors playing second fiddlers to Caucasian actors in general. I believe minority actors should be given more general roles for any RSC plays, I think we should ask why these talented people don’t have leading roles in Western plays as well.”

    You’re absolutely right and we ARE asking that question as well.


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