by Paul Courtenay Hyu

Actors, like any other profession, benefit from a trade union, which represents them in matters relating to work.

The year I joined Equity, the actor’s trade union, in 1989, was the year that Miss Saigon opened in the West End and Jonathan Pryce was cast to play an East Asian part, complete with make-up. Equity did not make any noise whatsoever about it. It was a different time, with Michael Gambon yet to play a blacked-up Othello (as an Arab) and the theme tune of It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum was still well known.

No one said much at the time about Gambon’s Othello, but which white actor has plans to play him as a black man today?

25 years is a long time. A generation. A different time. It couldn’t happen today. Could it? Are arguments about black representation equally applied to East Asians?

Last year, 2014, Miss Saigon re-opened with an East Asian actor in Pryce’s controversial part.

But only the previous year, in 2013, the producer Cameron Mackintosh had been unable to rule out again casting a white actor in this role. It seems ridiculous now the point has been tipped, but it’s the truth. I even invited head of casting Trevor Jackson to speak to Equity’s BAME members to tell us about his dilemma, which he gamely accepted.

Could it actually be possible that a white actor could play this part? Could Cameron Mackintosh really come to Equity and say so –without Equity saying a word?

Yes! Equity could and would make no statement about this – even though US Actors Equity did exactly that 23 years previously. Here in the UK, Equity was still rooted in the 80s.

Orphan-of-Zhao-2 In 2012, the RSC decided to produce the play The Orphan of Zhao, sometimes known as the “Chinese Hamlet”.  When casting was announced, of a cast of 17 only 3 roles were filled with East Asian actors; the other 14 were not East Asian.

To compound the matter, two of the three East Asian actors were cast to play a dog. It seemed incredible to East Asian actors, Chinese or not, and to broader members of the theatre community.

Where did these actors turn to voice their disgruntlement? Equity. Could Equity speak for them in this matter?

No.

Equity’s record: Anthony Hopkins played a blacked-up Othello for the 1981 BBC film, after Equity had refused to allow James Earl Jones in to play the role. Mike Newell had a meeting with Equity, which actually advised him to cast white actors and make them up as Chinese characters.

So it was in keeping with this record that in 2013 Equity would not make a statement backing its BAME members, who felt discriminated against. Equity could not support them.

Nearly three years later, Equity still appears unable to say anything in matters of casting controversies to do with race.

How could a trade union, supposedly set up to protect actors’ work rights, and which supposedly agrees with casting inclusivity, not do anything to protect its BAME members?

But Equity is on the cusp of making a change. Its “Minority Ethnic Members Committee” has drafted and sent to Council a rewrite of Equity’s existing unfit-for-purpose Policy, in hope that Equity will now “advocate” good practice.

But will it? So far, it seems that Equity does not want to commit to inclusive casting. Why? Because it fears that in doing so it would be perceived to be criticising (albeit on behalf of its BAME members) other members (i.e. the actors who have been cast).

The staff believes this scenario can’t and won’t work and foresees it becoming a potential ethical nightmare.

So, Equity says it does not want to get involved in matters of artistic choice. It says the decision to cast a white actor in a BAME part is an artistic one, so they must not interfere. This point of view – for an arts organisation – would be acceptable.

However, Equity is not an arts organisation. It is a trade union, which is supposed to protect its members’ working rights, and this includes protection from discrimination. And the question for Equity is whether artistic rights trump workers’ rights.

What about the BAME member of Equity, whose right to be seen and considered for this part has been harmed by an artistic decision? Who is speaking up for them? Protecting them? When the outcome of these artistic decisions always seems to exclude actors of colour, someone needs to speak. When the artistic decisions all seem to be exactly the same i.e. choosing a white actor and excluding an actor of colour, even from the casting process, it is not artistic. It is prejudice, bias and convention.

However, I still believe Equity is the correct place BAME actors should turn to in cases of perceived disadvantage. Equity should be proud to support its BAME members instead of running scared and saying nothing. I believe it should be bold and brave and be leading from the front, not playing catch-up from a generation ago.

If Equity can’t do that then it is supporting a status quo which discriminates against BAME members and puts the white members in a position of privilege, wittingly or not.

By adopting this new policy as best practice, Equity will truly become a vocal supporter of inclusivity.

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Paul Courtenay Hyu is an actor, director and writer with over 25 years’ experience. Born in London in the 60s to a Chinese-Guyanese father and white English mother, he has appeared in numerous theatrical productions in the UK, Hong Kong, Singapore, Europe and the US, as well as many film, TV and radio productions. Tweet him @chineseelvis 

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One thought on “Prejudice, bias and convention: The problem for Equity and minority ethnic actors

  1. Is it any wonder that some of the decent UK black and minority actors go to America to get decent work and to get recognised for their genuine talents? I don’t see why you are making excuses for this Equity organisation. If they can’t follow through on their core values and objectives, which seem to be to protect workers rights and from being discriminated then what’s the point of them? I see there is a ‘Minority Ethnic Members Committee’ within the Equity trade union, so you’re not all equal to begin with even within the trade union as you have to have a separate committee I assume to speak up for your rights within it – let alone outside it. Maybe its time for you and other like minded actors to start up a decent trade union for marginalised actors and performers that can provide decent representation from those who have experienced the things you talk about, such as being overlooked by white actors and being cast as dogs instead of the main character. The past is the past, we need to learn from it and move on. Its a slap in the face to all the BAME members paying your union fees, if your union is telling you to your face that “Equity says it does not want to get involved in matters of artistic choice. It says the decision to cast a white actor in a BAME part is an artistic one, so they must not interfere”. Jeez!!

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