BEATS is a not-for-profit advocacy organisation founded by British East and South East Asians [BESEA] working in the Theatre and Screen industry.
We seek to:
- Humanise the representation of British East and South East Asians in arts & culture.
- Increase the visibility of British East and South East Asians on the stages and screens.
- Advocate for equal opportunity for British East and South East Asians in the theatre and screen industry.
One of our means of achieving change is by directing the spotlight and mobilising the public to generate critical en masse support to key cultural events that act as catalysts for equality and representation for BESEA in the UK.
BEATS STATEMENT ON ROYAL OPERA HOUSE’S MADAMA BUTTERFLY
As an advocacy group for British East & South-East Asians (BESEAs), BEATS
(British East & South-East Asians in Theatre & on Screen) is very concerned about the Royal Opera House’s summer 2022 production of ‘Madama Butterfly’, which has very poor representation of BESEAs on stage. Across two casts, there is only one BESEA singer in a lead role, and only one BESEA singer in the chorus.
We support colour-conscious casting across the arts. Casting a white actor in a specifically non-white role, known as ‘whitewashing’, is regressive, as it perpetuates the historical and present exclusion of Artists of Colour from the stage, and limits the ability of Artists of Colour to participate in the telling of their own stories on stage. In opera particularly, Artists of Colour have historically found access and opportunities to be highly limited.
For an opera set in Japan to have so few ESEAs on stage is simply unacceptable. We urge the ROH to undertake a thorough review of its casting processes to ensure much better and more appropriate representation on- and off-stage. We also advocate for increasing the age of the character Butterfly from 15, as it contributes to the dehumanising normalisation of abuse against ESEA minors.
BEATS welcomes certain efforts that ROH have made to update their revival of a twenty-year-old production, including employing ESEA costume and movement consultants. ROH also agreed to remove any ‘yellowface’ makeup, however, from the production photos, it seems that this has regrettably not been implemented. ‘Yellowface’ is the use of dialect, make up, posture and costuming by white actors to portray Asian characters.
Further, we urge ROH to include BESEA artists in the original creative teams of such operas, rather than as latter-stage consultants, and to commission new works from BESEA creatives, with more nuanced understandings of ESEA race relations, history and culture.
BEATS STATEMENT ON RACIAL STEREOTYPING FROM MEMBERS OF PARLIAMENT
BEATS stands in solidarity with journalist Henry Dyer following his complaint against Labour MP Neil Coyle for offensive racial stereotyping. During the pandemic the surge in racism and hate crimes against east and south east Asians has seen our community face even greater levels of verbal and physical abuse. Attacks of this nature, where Henry was stereotyped due to his ethnicity, should not be tolerated. BEATS welcomes the Labour Party’s decision to suspend the whip from Neil Coyle and we await further actions from the investigation.
BEATS STATEMENT ON COLOUR CONSCIOUS CASTING IN OPERA
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.
BEATS STATEMENT REGARDING SCOTTISH OPERA’S ‘NIXON IN CHINA’ on 11 JUNE 2021
BEATS are very concerned to learn of the use of both yellowface makeup and whitewashing in Scottish Opera’s 2020 production of ‘Nixon in China’, which has recently been nominated for a South Bank Sky Arts Award.
There is clear photographic evidence that the practice of ‘yellowface’ was employed on dancers in the production: the application of make-up on white performers to make them look ‘more East Asian’. Like blackface, yellowface is a degrading form of cultural appropriation that dehumanises those it claims to represent. As we have previously stated, it should be unthinkable for a white performer to black up for Othello. It should be equally unthinkable for a performer to wear make-up in order to try to look ‘more Chinese’ or indeed to look ‘more Asian’ in any other opera or performance.
Scottish Opera also primarily cast non-ESEA (East & South-East Asian) talent in the production, a practice called whitewashing; of the six lead Chinese roles, only one of the singers cast was of ESEA heritage. While we welcome and support their casting of a black singer, Eric Greene, in the American role of Richard Nixon, to cast white singers in such roles as Mao Ze Dong and Zhou En-Lai is highly inappropriate. Furthermore, it seems there were no ESEA heritage people in the creative or backstage teams, despite the opera being set in China.
We acknowledge that ‘Nixon in China’ has its place in the operatic canon, despite its myriad Orientalist tropes, but as with all other historic pieces, we consider it imperative that modern productions are progressively updated and provide representation for the ESEA subjects featured. We also urge opera companies to commission new works from composers and librettists of ESEA heritage who have a nuanced understanding of ESEA cultures and ethnicities.
It is especially alarming, given the highly limited opportunities for BESEA opera singers and the recent resurgence in anti-ESEA racism, that a yellowfaced and whitewashed production could even be produced in 2020, let alone be nominated for a prestigious award.
BEATS invites the producers of Nixon In China and other opera productions involving ESEA characters and countries to discuss how they can improve representation in future productions.
STATEMENT REGARDING BBC SERIES ‘THE SERPENT’ on 12 JANUARY 2021
BBC’s latest high end drama series The Serpent started this week on BBC1. The Serpent, produced by Mammoth Pictures, focuses on the life of serial killer Charles Sobhraj, and was filmed across numerous Southeast Asian countries yet none of the main cast are East/South East Asian (ESEA), including the actor portraying half Vietnamese, half Indian Sobhraj.
We at BEATS are once again calling for the BBC and other broadcasters to stop overlooking East and Southeast Asian talent when casting actors for shows depicting ESEA heritage characters. The Serpent is not an outlier, Mammoth Pictures has form on mounting prestige television shows that cast a white western gaze on East and South East Asia (see their recent The Singapore Grip for ITV). This homogenisation of Asian communities at best erases our presence and unique identities, at worst dehumanises ESEA people, using us as nothing more than background props. Whilst audiences grieve for the tragic (white) victims, who have been portrayed as highly developed individual characters in their own right, the same cannot be said for any of the ESEA characters in The Serpent who are barely there.
We respect pan-Asian casting but not when it excludes marginalised ESEA ethnic groups. Tahar Rahim and Amesh Edireweera, who play leading characters Charles Sobhraj and Ajay Chowdhury, are exceptional actors but there is absolutely no reason why the BBC should not be able to cast actors of ESEA heritage of the same calibre, especially when the opportunities for ESEA actors are so limited already.
Now more than ever, with discrimination rising against people of ESEA heritage due to racist Coronavirus messaging, the BBC and all other TV networks should take into consideration that responsible representation is vital.
BEATS invites the producers of The Serpent and other productions involving ESEA characters and countries to discuss how they can improve representation in future productions.
This erasure and dehumanising of our communities has to stop. We are not your wallpaper.
STATEMENT ON DOMINO’S PIZZA ADVERTISEMENT on 13 JANUARY 2021
Domino’s Pizza’s latest advertising campaign thoughtlessly encourages sinophobic attitudes at a time when East and South East Asian [ESEA] communities are suffering an unprecedented increase in racism linked to coronavirus.
The advert opens with three housemates discussing what to have for dinner. One of them replies “Anything but Chinese”. This remains unchallenged by the other characters. The statement itself is left open to interpretation, but the obvious implication is that Chinese food is bad. In the context of coronavirus, this is an irresponsible message.
Sinophobic attitudes have risen sharply as a result of Covid racism, and reports of racist violence towards East and Southeast Asian people in the UK have trebled since the beginning of the pandemic. ESEA businesses, especially in the catering industry have suffered greatly across the UK, and many family run restaurants have had to shut down. A sharp increase of unemployment has affected ESEA communities internationally.
The Domino’s advert appears to have exploited this opportunity to play non-white communities against each other. Their choice of “banter” is poorly-timed and will only exacerbate the sinophobic sentiment currently rampant in the UK.
The advert should be taken down immediately and a full apology issued from Domino’s and advertising agency VCCP, addressed to ESEAs and all viewers, for creating divisiveness within ethnic minority groups and taking a cheap shot at the already-hurting Chinese community.
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BEATS have been in formation for over two years now – and what a ride it has been! We’ve overseen the formidable gold open of Crazy Rich Asians, led the campaign Living with Lams and supported numerous artistic endeavours from Forgotten to Summer Rolls.
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