2016 – it’s not been all bad..

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What an extraordinary year 2016 has been.

On the one hand a cold wake up call with the Brexit and the U.S. Presidential results sending seismic political shocks across the globe and unleashing a very real and frightening rise of xenophobia and racism. On the other, the awareness of the issue of diversity in the arts has never felt so high with a renewed effort by the Arts Council to place diversity squarely at the top of the agenda for all NPO’S (National Portfolio Organisations). I sincerely hope this will shift thinking in our mainly white,male, middle class led organisations so theatre begins to reflect the real society we live in today, it has to otherwise it will no longer be relevant to a 21st century audience.  With all the political and financial uncertainties to come it’s going to take a monumental effort on everyone’s part.

Earlier this month I was invited to be on a panel discussing BAME leadership and governance as part of a day entitled Power Through Diversity to which all Chief Execs and Artistic Directors of NPO’s were invited. One of the main messages that seemed to come through from the panel was the need for diversity and inclusion, that everyone has to get on board with the idea of diversity and it can’t just be foisted on from high.  There was also a clear worry that we shouldn’t be tokenistic about it but I came away concerned that this fear of tokenism too often leads to inaction and excuse to delay; you have to start to make a change, take a ‘risk’ in order for any change to begin.

So often it feels like 3 steps forward, 5 steps back. We are now ending the year with the news that the respected Print Room is producing a play In the Depths of Dead Love by Howard Barker set in ancient China with characters called ‘Chin’, and ‘Mrs Hu’ and played by an all white caucasian cast. A statement has been issued saying China is a ‘reference to the abstract and folkloric idea of the universal’ err – are Chinese people not real? That in fact it’s a very ‘English’ play – who do they consider to be ‘English’ today? The simple question is would they have cast an all white caucasian cast if the play was set in ancient ‘Africa’ using characters with names such as Obi and Akua? I do not think so. Why is it still seen as legitimate to use East Asian culture and ethnicity as costumes to wear with not one thought for those whose culture it is ? ‘We have plenty of talented and gifted actors ready, equipped and hungry to tackle complex roles, why could they have at least considered them and cast some of them or if it is mythic set it in a mythic land with a mixed cast. A new Howard Barker production is usually such an exciting prospect, sadly not this time.  Yellow Earth has just completed a first round of auditions for our next production; ‘Tamburlaine Reclaimed’, an adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s dark and violent play which has become frighteningly relevant. We are currently looking at casting an all women, all BEA cast. This is how confident we are feeling and how bold we need to be.

For our community of BEA actors, writers and directors we still feel we have a mountain to climb before we reach a point when we feel fully accepted as part of British society and not viewed as ‘other’.  We are on the beginning of that journey and what has been heart warming is that as we continue to climb we grow in numbers as more people join us. Dare I say it but we know there is a hierarchy in diversity and BEAs are pretty low down despite being the 3 rd largest ethnic group in the country and the fastest growing one, so we have to keep pushing on. Ironically the real success of the company will be when it ceases to need to exist – when we are all accepted as part of the mainstream, gainfully employed in all areas of the industry and all manner of stories are being told from all communities and experiences, but until then we have much work to do.

Having said all that as a company Yellow Earth has had a pretty amazing year, reaching an incredible 21 years and with  exciting developments on the horizon .

Personal highlights include

  • My trip to the States at the beginning of the year resulting in many fruitful connections made and conversations begun with Asian American Theatres and artists there. Not least meeting the wonderful and inspiring freelance director and teacher Mae Ann Teo who played host to me at Hampshire College, Massachusetts and then subsequently came over to direct one of our playreadings for Typhoon; Purple Cloud which was a resounding success. I certainly hope we can get her over again to work with us.
  • Bringing back Typhoon our international playreading festival and sharing some powerful and amazing plays with audiences at Soho and Rich Mix leading to a spin off series of Japanese staged play readings in the autumn which we presented with Stonecrabs TC and the Japan Foundation and was very well received with full houses.
  • Performing the short music and drama piece; Song Unsung to 10,000 people in Trafalgar Square as part of London Chinese new Year celebrations and at the launch of the SouthBank’s new China Changing Festival this time with a mixed Chinese and English choir.
  • News we had been awarded an Elevate grant from the Arts Council allowing us to undertake vital development work and enable us to launch a new 2 year Professional Writer’s Programme next year together with support from Esmee Fairbairn.
  • Being awarded an Olwen Wymark Encouragement Award by the Writers Guild for our work with writer Joyce Lee over the years and to top it off
  • Tamburlaine Reclaimed to be our next production with support from Arts Council England, the Cockayne Foundation and the Foyle Foundation.

There are many more exciting projects in the pipeline and I look forward to a new year with positivity and enthusiasm. Despite the increasingly uncertain political landscape and the mountain the BEA community still faces I will step with my best foot forward and continue to take heart from the wonderful, intelligent and passionate artists and people with whom I work with and encounter every day. I will continue for the sake of them and my children to try and make the world a better, more inclusive and equitable place for us all to live and work in.

Kumiko

22 December 2016