A pantomime production of Aladdin has come under fire this week, with many accusing the directors of “casual racism” after they cast two white people as ‘The Chinese Policemen’ in an already all-white cast.
The production, set to run at the Forum Theatre in Billingham from 1st December, put up posters of the pantomime, showing ‘The Chinese Policemen’ being played by comedy duo Darren and Rob Harper. The other actors shown on the poster are also white.
Consequently, a spokesman for campaign group British East Asians in Theatre and Screen called the production out for racism, stating: “Christmas in the UK: mince pies, carols and good old-fashioned anti-Chinese racism”.
He continued with: “We see it every year in panto. Tropes such as ‘The Chinese Policemen’ in Aladdin are offensive relics from an era when it was seen as harmless to make fun of ‘foreign’ names, accents, food and culture. Let’s leave them in the past where they belong.”
Actor Irvine Iqbal also expressed his frustration with the production, stating: “Is this the future for representation in our industry? What example does this set for our younger generation of performers? Who are leaders driving change?”.
In the current multi-cultural climate we are living in, in which many have taken to the streets to protest anti-racism, musical theatre should be the first line of change, representative of the talent pool, and of society at large. Children should be able to see themselves reflected back in shows that they go to see, rather than sitting and watching an all-white show, wondering where they fit into the story.
In response to the backlash, Forum Theatre Riverside Leisure Promotions (those behind the upcoming Aladdin production) argued that the controversial characters are “traditional characters in most traditional pantomime versions of Aladdin.”
Director of Riverside Leisure Productions, Derek Cooper, even want as far as statin: “I’m sure if you check back through years of regional pantos performed, you will find a version of their characters billed at many, many theatres – if not all.”
He went on to defend the casting decision by arguing: “We have billed the Harper Brothers as ‘The Chinese Policemen’ and not as ‘Chinese Policemen’ – The Chinese Policemen being the traditional characters they are playing. We are not pretending in any shape or form that they are actually Chinese.”
However, this unchallenged behaviour in other productions in the past does not mean it is acceptable in the twenty-first century, where we are meant to be more culturally aware of past behaviour. If Derek Cooper is not associating these policemen with the ethnicity, the ethnic description should be removed from the characters name, regardless of previous traditions.
Derek Cooper finally stated: “Our casting policy is very simple. We try our best to retain the same actors year after year, due to no other reason than they are very talented, our local audience loves them and they are very friendly and easy to get on with backstage, which is important when you are constantly together as a team for six weeks.”
He added: “Last year we performed Snow White whose cast included a black dwarf and an Asian professional dancer as part of the main ensemble. We are not in any shape or form racist here at the Forum Theatre.”
Despite this previous representation in Snow White, Cooper’s comments reveal the difficulty that under-represented ethnic groups have in getting to the top, or even receiving a part, in the theatre industry. Previous research has also shown that those who benefit from a privileged background dominate what appears on stage. Cooper’s comments suggest an overt ignorance to the casual racism that is at play here, highlighting the normalisation of such behaviour towards East Asians in the musical theatre industry.
The criticism comes not as an attack on the production of Aladdin, but on the casting decisions that leave many actors, who would have fit the role perfectly, without a job and left thinking whether they’re good enough. Instead of encouraging change, casting choices within the pantomime seem to be another example of theatre taking the easy route of traditionalism and privilege; a route that needs to be changed as soon as possible.
Words by Lucy Lillystone.
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