On Thursday I went to see Desolate Heaven at Theatre 503 with a couple of friends from CSSD. It was an exceptional play in every regard and I’d recommend you see it if you can.
I stayed for a pint with the old guard and one who had read both an early and recent version of Bump asked me a great question: Why had I made one of the characters ethnically Asian when I hadn’t before?
The answer is that I’d conceived him as Asian at first and then reconsidered in the hope of making the role as open to as many actors as possible. I figured that I hadn’t made enough use of that ethnicity to limit the part in such a way. In fact, within the play, the issue of race is meant to be a red herring, with the social/cultural power given by different jobs actually the bigger point of division.
However, around the time of the third draft I felt that I was being absurd. Why should I have to justify something like that when its my own background? If a drama is made in its specifics, whitewashing the part, as it were, seems an odd thing to do.
I don’t know if that answer satisfied at all, but it got me thinking about writing ethnicity more broadly.
I think that minorities are more disadvantaged with neutral casting than white actors. Though I admit it’s not that clean a situation as it first appears. If anything, speaking crudely, black can play white but not the other way around.
In a Shakespeare play we don’t really bat an eye at a black man playing, say, the Duke of Gloucester, but a white Othello would raise an eyebrow. I guess that in this case the caveat is that the character’s ethnicity, his Otherness, is deeply rooted in the part and hard to separate without a complete reversal (E.g. all black cast, white Othello). Likewise, a lot of ethnic plays and parts focus on that difference and otherness, either through dialect, cultural specificity or often being on the weaker end of a power scale, and we might feel funny when white actors “take” those parts. They’ve got enough, haven’t they?
So some roles are protected as Good Ethnic Roles. Is this right? Not really. Isn’t it limiting? Yes. But there just aren’t really that many floating about. It shouldn’t be a big deal in this day and age – we should just write roles – but I certainly feel a compulsion to write a great part for a great British Asian actor. That is, to actively cut out the vast majority of the acting pool.
I don’t know why I feel that, maybe because “white” (Christian?) names are default in drama and most of the Asians I know don’t have such names. A white British playwright, which is obviously the majority in a majority white country, will draw on, say, their own family life for a play (family plays being popular and common) and their characters would be called Bob, Nancy, Christina, Kyle etc. To my mind, and in my experience, an ethnically Asian actor is less likely to get a part there, because it might seem a bit odd to an audience. Yet I feel that if I were to write a play about a British family of Asian descent with names specifically of that community but with the drama being nothing to do with their being of that background, I’d get called up on it. My friend brought up the example of an all-black production of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof – but there that blackness was made a “thing”, a point is made of it. The same often happens when it’s an all-female Shakespeare casting, like in the current Julius Caesar at the Donmar.
It’s not necessarily always the case, I mean there is a subset of Asian names that are easily Anglicised. My own for example, or Samir (I assume) to Sam as appeared in Lucy Kirkwood’s NSFW. That part was played by an Asian actor in its production at the Court but wouldn’t have to be. More broadly, the greater cross over of Christian names within black communities I imagine means it’s less jarring there, and East Asians often choose a Westernised name as well and we’re well used to that. So it’s not really a big deal is it?
I’m not sure. It can be an insidious thing. During my CSSD TV writing class, for example, we were all assigned a character to develop, and I was given the main one – a man with a Christian name. In creating characters, we are told to try and nail down a few specifics, such as age, weight, height, background etc and I made the main character black. I tried to say I was doing it to play off a running joke in which the character, a failed musician, attempts to claim himself as part of the Delta Blues heritage, but I think mostly I wanted to know what the reaction would be.
Both my tutor and most of my fellow writers told me: “No, I didn’t really see him as black.” Not “well, let’s leave that to casting” (which I would take as a more understandable response – choose the best actor), just “we didn’t really see him as black”. Would that be the case if I just made him blonde or redhead? Maybe, depends on how broad the comedy was, but I doubt it. To me it suggested an unsettling implication of character traits based on the character’s skin colour.
For many, white is default. To write in a character specifically as an ethnic minority – even though there are many who are completely integrated, their ethnic background not a defining part of their being – seems to require a justification on a thematic level. We often don’t ask the same of characters we envisage as white.
Writing parts with defined ethnicity that are dramatically ‘neutral’ is not necessarily what I always want to be doing, I think beyond a certain type of naturalistic theatre (admittedly the most mainstream kind) it is ultimately regressive and I think I’ve nearly written that instinct out of me. But still…