New Earth will be a crucial voice for BESEA artists

Originally published in The Stage, 5 November 2020.

It’s no mean feat for a theatre company to survive for 25 years. Yellow Earth, founded in 1995, is today recognised as a leading producer of British East and South East Asian theatre. In a normal year, this would be a great excuse for a party. But these aren’t normal times; they’re profoundly discordant.

So why is now the moment we’re changing our name to New Earth Theatre? First and foremost, New Earth speaks of hope, of new beginnings and of new possibilities. Things we all desperately need at the moment. 

New Earth is here to make theatre led by British East and South East Asian (BESEA) artists. We used to use the term ‘British East Asian’, but ‘British East and South East Asian’ better reflects and is inclusive of the community we represent. And if you didn’t know the acronym BESEA (pronounced “bee-see”), you do now. 

East and Southeast Asia is a vast region that includes China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines. The BESEA communities that make up the diaspora in the UK are extraordinarily diverse. Each has its own history, its own experience. Each has limitless and urgent stories to tell. But recognition for our communities in the UK has been minimal. We have suffered from an invisibility, or what could be termed erasure, for many years. We are rarely seen or heard on TV, in the media or in public office. 

New Earth is here to challenge this status quo. We want a UK where BESEA-led theatre is an integral and thriving part of the national arts landscape. We want to normalise the presence of BESEA creatives on stage and off stage. We want to see BESEA people leading major arts organisations. 

These are big ambitions, particularly at a time when the pandemic has pushed the theatre industry to the brink of an existential crisis. So why am I so optimistic about making progress? Mainly because so much progress has been made in my lifetime, and we are not about to let go of that. There is huge spirit, talent and determination amongst my colleagues in the BESEA community and I feel a duty to ensure the next generation have somewhere to go to and be inspired by. 

To consider the distance travelled, I have to go back to my own beginnings. I grew up in Watford with a Japanese mother and a German Jewish father. Theatre wasn’t a big part of my childhood, and it never occurred to me that I could make it my career. But my childhood did leave me with questions about my place in the world. I realised at an early age that I was seen by many as ‘other’. 

A stark example was the day my primary school caretaker told me, in no uncertain terms, that I was “a child of the enemy”. I was so shocked I couldn’t respond, never mind tell him that my mother was only eight years old when the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan, or that my father was a refugee from Nazi Germany. 

It wasn’t until I discovered the world of acting, in my early 20s, that I found a space in which I could be whoever I wanted to be. That was until I tried to audition for TV and film roles. Casting directors had no idea which box to put me in; Japanese-German, Jewish, English? Luckily, I found my home in the theatre, and in the early 1990s, my life changed forever when David Tse cast me in his production of The Magic Paintbrush at Polka Theatre. 

Working with David and my fellow cast members Kwong Loke, Veronica Needa and Tom Wu, brought with it a wonderful sense of acceptance and belonging.  When David invited us to form a theatre company, it was a no brainer. We called it Yellow Earth, after the seminal film directed by Chen Kaige. It was incredibly exciting to take control of our destinies and make work for ourselves and others like ourselves.

As part of Yellow Earth, I found fellowship with artists who were frustrated about the way that British East and South East Asians were stereotyped, excluded and sidelined. David led our fledgling company and worked tirelessly to put us on the map, gain recognition and create increasingly ambitious shows. 

Having run our participation and outreach work, when I became artistic director nine years ago, I worked to broaden our community of artists, both through our development and academy programmes, and by increasing creative opportunities. At the time there very few other BESEA-led companies, and none that were producing theatre on a regular basis.

But the external barriers remained. People had narrow expectations of our work. Some were only interested if we featured martial arts. Venues would also say “but we had you last year” – reinforcing the idea that BESEA theatre need only ever be an occasional tick in a box. Even today it is still a struggle to be programmed outside of Chinese New Year.

Instances like these are infuriating, but they’ve also helped me find my voice. I am proud of the times that we as a community have spoken out to challenge ‘yellowface’; the practice of assuming the appearance, makeup or costume of an East Asian or South East Asian person, typically by a white person. The protests against the RSC’s 2012 casting of The Orphan of Zhao and the Print Room’s 2017 production of In the Depths of Dead Love were turning points for our sector. As have been, more recently, the creation of End the Virus of Racism, the Covid-19 Anti-Racism Group and the BESEA Freelance survey as part of the Freelance Task Force. I thank the tireless advocates and activists who embolden all of us, Lucy Sheen, Daniel York Loh, Leo Wan, Mei Mac and BEATS are just a few of those names.

Last year a leader of a regional venue said to me: “We are going to commit to a BESEA production every year”. I was delighted. This is what we want to hear from all venues. Unfortunately we’re still waiting to see BESEA people leading major companies or buildings. It will happen, but it underlines the fact that we continue to be the ‘other’ in many spaces and representations.

An important difference between 1995 and 2020 is that we now spend less time trying to fit in or contort ourselves to get through doors. Our community has grown in numbers and we are better connected through the use of social media. This has given rise to a newfound confidence. I meet so many extraordinarily young, articulate women, non-binary, trans, LGBQT, disabled and working class BESEA artists. They still face enormous barriers, but they are organising, creating and insisting on change. 

These people give me great hope for the future, but I can’t escape the fact that the global pandemic has been devastating for our communities. The statistics are dire. We’ve seen a threefold rise in recorded hate crime against BESEA people in the UK, a hugely disproportionate number of deaths among Filipino health workers in the NHS, and we have the President of the United States freely speaking of the “China Virus” and the “Kung Flu”, fuelling the continuing rise of Covid-related racism. 

We also know that it is the newer members of our industry, who also happen to be the most diverse, who are struggling to see a sustainable career in theatre because of the pandemic.

BESEA communities desperately need to connect, express themselves and heal. As New Earth, we are committed to being part of this process. 

New Earth stands for new beginnings, new possibilities and new terrains. Through the power of making and sharing theatre, we are determined to humanise BESEA experiences and bring our stories to audiences across the UK and beyond.

If we want to build back better and stronger, if we want an industry that is truly inclusive, accessible and equitable, then I believe diverse-led companies like New Earth must not only survive but thrive.

-Kumiko Mendl, Artistic Director.

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