Sophia Luu | Asian Theatre in a White World

I would happily be the first to raise my hand and say my performance in Teahouse was not flawless, this is not why I am critiquing Teahouse‘s reviews. I critique them because I would also be the first to appreciate the sheer ambition of this show: not just because of the huge cast, the inexperience of a majority of the actors or the 50 year timespan that the play itself captures, but because our cast and crew are trying to break the boundaries at the ADC and to try and give the BME community a more dominant place in theatre – a place it shouldn’t need to fight for anyway. For the first time ever, a traditional Asian play is being used to confront the traditions of Cambridge acting. Yet, after reading the reviews (which could easily be seen as racially insensitive) it feels like those writing had missed the point entirely, enforcing a western framework onto a piece which, at its heart, was never intended for a western audience.

One reviewer wrote: “I can’t believe that a play with such enduring popularity in China is really so lacking, and the only explanation I can come up with is that perhaps it was a poor translation.” Perhaps another explanation is that she forgot that not every play ever written was for people of a ‘privileged white background’ (and I use that term very loosely, because I don’t think it is a privilege to be so culturally insensitive). This play is momentous because it captures the struggle of so many individuals during such a turbulent and unsettling time – when usually they would be overlooked. The author himself committed suicide after being publicly shamed during the Cultural Revolution for Teahouse‘s success.

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Teahouse’s revolutionary cast [credit: Johannes Hjorth]
The biggest issue I have with these reviews was their treatment of individual actors. Yuhang Wu, an incredible actor who is the most popular with the audience in every performance, was described as ‘somewhat hard to understand’, with the reviewer concluding rather patronisingly, that he was an ‘endearing’ pimp. If he really was so hard to understand, how were his jokes so well received? The requirements of the show’s fast paced nature over a backdrop of five decades is challenging for any actor – regardless of ethnicity or experience. For the 19 new actors who debuted this week, review culture can seem daunting – especially if you are attacked for something like an accent, which you can’t even change, and shouldn’t have to change, especially when your accent is the most appropriate for the play you are putting on. It’s enough to put people off acting and could explain why there are so few BME actors. I feel that Yuhang’s accent is clear and reminds us of the roots of the play. None of the reviewers critiqued my poor Chinese pronunciation.

We made sure that at least one Asian producer or assistant director was present at every single rehearsal, so that we were appropriately capturing the flavour of the play. And I think, as well as the two Chinese producers and twenty Chinese cast members, we did a good job. Whilst I cannot speak from a Chinese background, I can confirm from an Asian (Vietnamese) upbringing that East Asian theatre is entirely different to what we typically experience in the UK. It is, in a sense, more staged, a little more static and with a mixture of comedy and tragedy which doesn’t quite blend – but interrupts each other.

Of course, in ways, the play had to adapt for a western audience – the translations were an example of this, with a few added jokes to keep the mood light-hearted and relatable. Yes, there were issues with the translation, like there is with any language, and the show tried its best to make these weaknesses our strengths, for instance in the scene where Tang the Oracle (Gemma Jing) explains to Pock Mark Liu (Yuhang Wu) that ‘trust’ in a Beijing dialect translates to ‘drag, pull, tear’. I felt that the formality of speech in the script reflected the respectful nature of Chinese culture. Pronouns such as ‘sister’, ‘elder brother’ and ‘wife of my fourth nephew’ are constant reminders of the characters relations to each other, and this exists in many East Asian languages as a sign of respect. And whilst I don’t expect a western audience to understand this, I felt there would at least be a consideration for it.

Out of the three reviews we have had so far – two have either spelt my name wrong or mixed me up with another mixed raced character in the show. Being mixed raced brings its own challenges to the show. Looking predominantly white, I felt that I had to work hard to portray the culture well, and sometimes I felt my looks gave me a disadvantage when trying to accurately portray the snappy, tired and ‘keen to please’ proprietress. I felt it was quite hard-hitting to hear that my acting was ‘flat’ in areas, as I felt that the reviewer here was not aware of the modest demeanour of this type of character. As an actor, you identify with every role, on some scale. And receiving that comment made me feel ‘less Asian’, which is something I sometimes struggle with being of mixed ethnicity.

The purpose of bringing Teahouse to the ADC was to promote new audiences. We have seen a significant rise in the number of BME ticket sales alone and this audience enjoyed the show and felt like it was accurately portrayed. Their negative reaction to the reviews alone are a testament to the success of the play. For me and the rest of the cast and crew, this is so crucial and the main reason why we came together in the first place. We feel we have achieved our goal. It is just a shame that the reviews do not seem to have quite appreciated what this play was trying to do, and instead focused on the easier option: evaluating it in terms of deep-rooted Western thesp culture rather than on its own terms, in its own contexts. In turn, by using this culture as a default benchmark of quality, they fail to consider the way in which Teahouse fundamentally challenges its homogeneity.

 

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