Lightly Brown Until Ready

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…

5 thoughts on “Lightly Brown Until Ready

  1. I agree. There is still a lot of pressure on writers and directors to leave casting ‘open’ (i.e. default imaginary setting is white) to not ‘limit’ your financing options. But this presupposes that the audience only wants to see people who look exactly like them…!

  2. difficult to put in practice without patronising the audience.
    Surely the issue is that multiculturalism in the UK is pocketed with a definate regional bias -so is the challenge to write a character with integrity which can be adjusted for regional audiences?.A little like panto but with more integrity and sophistication. Are there enough parts for people from Newcastle?

  3. Do it Vinay. Write ethnic characters. Why? Well if you don’t, and I don’t write parts for women then we’ll just churn out more roles for white men and they’ve got enough. Leave casting decisions to the director, but I think writers need to create the world and characters they see, the voices they hear and what is important to them. Wendy

  4. This is a great post, Vinay – and hits lots of issues that I often wrestle with myself when writing plays that aren’t “about” being brown, as it were.

    The thing is – casting directors are perfectly capable of whitewashing parts without you (the general you) having to. And though chromatic actors sometimes are cast in traditionally ‘white’ or ‘default’ roles, there’s a much longer and grander tradition of minority characters – especially ones in title roles – being cast as white. Avatar: The Last Airbender’s protagnist was suddenly not East Asian. 21 – a book about a bunch of East Asian kids gambling – was made with white leads (Kate Bosworth and Jim Sturgess). Ben Kingsley plays Mahatma Gandhi, one of the most recognisable and renowned Indians in the world – he’s good in the role, but really, Bollywood is the largest film industry in the world – weren’t there any venerable Indian actors who would be as good in the role? Especially considering that it’s a film that deals with colonialism and the struggle for freedom against the domination of the British – a delicious, if somewhat unsettling irony.

    Similarly: Elizabeth Taylor playing Cleopatra, an Egyptian queen. Taylor Lautner in the Twilight films playing a Native American. Place in the wider context of yellowface or blackface – deliberate acts on the part of those in power to mock, stigmatize and caricature minorities.

    This also plays in to the long and grand tradition of white/male/cis protagonists with minority sidekicks. Even films that are about a particular culture/time/place somehow manage to be fronted with white men – The Last Samurai effect.

    Another point that ties into your experience with making a character with a “default” (read: Christian, white-sounding) name black – the huge backlash against Idris Elba’s casting as Heimdall in the Thor films:

    It’s Norse mythology, of course there aren’t black people in it! (Forget the fact that the Norse gods are actually aliens, and then team up with super powered humans on Earth. I mean, really, it’s the casting of a black man as a Norse God that *really* breaks the realism of the film.)

    But these arguments about realism and ‘mythic integrity’, relying on the default=white argument, are constantly used to keep people of colour off the screen. And they become particularly insidious, I think, when you look at the British television and film industry in particular. So much of it relies on period drama – which seems to automatically discount people of colour unless their race is particularly remarked upon, or they are in some way symbols as well as characters – the recent Mystery of Edwin Drood, for instance, which cast Indians from (I think) the West Indies as the Landless siblings. Not that I’m down on that – it’s great, and I was incredibly pleased to see brown faces in a period drama – but they are notable for their rarity, and bear a weight of explication, of thematic meaning tied to their race, that white characters rarely have to. It’s the Mad Men problem. It does make sense for fiction based in a particular time period to reflect the cultural mores in its casting, but it becomes an issue when so much of what is produced is about nostalgia for a past which – from my perspective anyway, *doesn’t bloody include anyone who looks like me*.

    There are some notable exceptions. But they are *notable* *exceptions*. Dancing on the Edge – the recent BBC series about a black jazz band in 1940s London, is great. Even Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a marvellous example of casting a black protagonist in a role originated by a white man. But these examples are just a drop in a vast, vast ocean – so, I guess what I’m trying to say is – echoing Wendy above – write characters who are deliberately not the white/male/cis “norm” on the page. It’ll still be a struggle to get them on the screen and stage. But write them, because there aren’t enough out there – and that makes a difference.

    The only novel I read that was about India with Indian characters during my IB in bleeding Bangalore was Passage to India by EM Forster – and we read it with no reference to colonialism, or discussion about his perspective – or his wild stereotyping of the “sly, cunning, lazy” natives. So write ’em, because you’re already writing against the weight of a selectively created history, yeah?

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