With Blackta at The Young Vic and The Orphan of Zhao at The Swan, our theatre editor asks, is it time to talk about race?
Earlier this year, poet and playwright Sabrina Mahfouz asked Twitter to think of some young British-Arab actors. As usual, in this scenario, my mind went instantly blank. I can barely remember my own parents’ names when asked on the spot.
What was worrying, however, was that my mind remained blank. For hours. While I could think of a couple of British-Pakistani or British-Bangladeshi actors, or the British-Egyptian actor Khalid Abdalla or the British-Iranian actor and star of Phonejacker, Kayvan Novak, I couldn’t think of a single British-Arab actor. Man or woman.
This is, obviously, a bit of a concern. We have emerging actors here on IdeasTap of Bangladeshi origin who are put up for parts that range – like some sort of modern-day casting silk road – from Morocco and India to Turkey and Iraq. At last weekend’s 24 Hour Plays: Old Vic New Voices, the actor Haseeb Malik introduced his special skill as “being Asian”. Is this because as an industry we are too lackadaisical about our research? Or is it because there are simply not enough Asian actors to go round?
It is a question that came up again recently – in reference this time, to east Asian actors – with the news that of the 17 actors cast in the RSC’s production of The Orphan of Zhao, only three are of east Asian heritage. Awkers. Although, as The Guardian pointed out, the company doing The Orphan of Zhao will also perform Alexander Pushkin's Boris Godunov and a new version of Bertolt Brecht's A Life of Galileo by Mark Ravenhill.
Which begs the question, would it be weird to watch a version of A Life of Galileo performed by a predominantly east Asian cast? And, more importantly, would it be weirder than watching a production of The Orphan of Zhao by a predominantly white cast? Or a production of The Mahabharata by a predominantly white cast? Are we, as audiences, still distracted by the race of an actor? And, therefore, is the barrier to Asian casting – dare I say it – us?
As Blackta opens at The Young Vic – a new play that takes a satirical look at talent contests by asking, “Who’s going to win? The black, the yellow or the brown guy?” – we are offering you an opportunity to discuss your thoughts and experiences at a post-show platform at the theatre on Thursday 8 November. The panel will include Artistic Director of the Young Vic David Lan, Blackta playwright and star Nathaniel Martello-White, Artistic Director of The Red Room Topher Campbell and Lindsay Johns, a broadcaster and journalist for Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and Evening Standard.
You don’t need to be a black actor – or “blackta” – to take part, but you are invited to suggest the kind of things you’d like to discuss on our forum before Friday 2 November.
After all, it’s hard to find the answer if you don’t ask the question.
Illustration by Narcsville. Originally posted on Ideastap
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