Posted on Jul 29, 2022
As an advocacy group for British East and South-East Asians (BESEAs), BEATS (British East & South-East Asians in Theatre & on Screen) supports colour-conscious casting across stage and screen, including in opera.
BEATS recognises that casting is a complex and developing process, and advises that context should be taken into account, and may influence the below parameters. Generally speaking, to improve representation across our industry, our current recommendations are as follows:
1. Casting an Artist of Colour (AoC) in a traditional ‘white’ role can be progressive (context-dependent), as it can work to balance out the historical and current exclusion of AoCs on stage, and the discrimination they have experienced and continue to experience.
2. Casting a white actor in a specifically non-white role, known as ‘whitewashing’, is regressive, as it perpetuates the historical and present exclusion of AoCs from the stage, and limits the ability of AoCs to participate in the telling of their own stories on stage. In opera particularly, AoCs have historically found access and opportunities to be highly limited.
3. Pan-Asian casting in the UK is generally acceptable (context-dependent), as despite the multiplicity of Asian cultures, ethnicities and histories, Asians have faced similar historical exclusions from the stage and discrimination in the West, and any progress on representation across this group is supported. “Pan-Asian casting” is the term used for casting people of the same ethnicity but of different Asian nationalities.
4. Application of make-up to make actors look more like a certain ethnicity, such as yellow-face, black-face, brown-face or red-face is never acceptable.
In the UK, the playing field for BESEA actors is not level, so where roles of ESEA heritage are available, BESEA actors should be strongly considered for these roles. As per our recommendation 1, we don’t encourage pigeonholing of BESEA actors into only playing roles of ESEA heritage, rather we advocate for BESEA actors to be much more widely considered for both ESEA and other traditional ‘white’ roles.
BEATS urges opera companies to make significant efforts to cast BESEA actors in ESEA heritage roles. At this stage in time in the UK, at the least, a majority of the lead ESEA roles should be played by BESEA actors. The same applies to the chorus – opera companies should make significant efforts to cast, at the least, a majority of BESEA singers in the chorus. In any case, no yellow-face makeup should ever be applied to any singer on stage. Just as the role of Othello is no longer performed with a white singer wearing dark make-up (black-face).
Further, BEATS recognises that many traditional stage works, especially operatic works such as Madame Butterfly, Turandot and The Mikado, may have problematic subject matters and are replete with ‘Orientalist’ tropes, and we encourage any productions of such works to engage with BESEA communities on and off stage to update these productions, so that they raise questions and challenge Orientalism, rather than reproduce it.
We urge opera companies to include BESEA artists in the creative teams of such operas, and also to commission new works from BESEA composers and librettists, which could have more nuanced understandings of ESEA race relations, history and culture.
If you have any questions about BEATS, the advocacy that we do, want to know more or need to talk to someone, please contact us by using this form.