Actors in Britain of East Asian heritage claim they are often overlooked for roles on stage and screen and the parts offered sometimes perpetuate stereotypes, according to interviews conducted by Kyodo News.

The actors say they are often more likely to get work when a director specifically needs a Chinese or Japanese actor, for example. This is particularly the case in TV and film rather than in the theater where attitudes are improving and British East Asians (BEAs) are being offered a wider range of roles.

Despite the underrepresentation, more plays about East Asia are coming to the stage. For example, "The Great Wave", a play about the abduction of Japanese citizens to North Korea, received rave reviews at The National Theatre recently. It had an all-East Asian and Southeast Asian cast.

(A scene from "The Great Wave")
[Photo courtesy of Mark Douet]

However, in the last few years several companies have attracted criticism and protests after casting plays set in China with a cast of all-white actors. This practice is known as "yellowface" -- white actors changing their appearance with makeup to play East Asian characters.

Actress Lucy Sheen, who has Chinese ancestry, said, "I think East Asians are still underrepresented and there are less opportunities than when I first graduated in 1985."

"The majority of opportunities for actors in TV and film -- although the theater is not immune from this -- are your stereotypical, racist tropes, perpetuating the ongoing myth of the model minority (that East Asians are hardworking and law-abiding), and where the women often appear exotic, the men are emasculated and the family is running a Chinese takeaway."

Daniel York, a British/Chinese mixed-race playwright and actor, agreed BEAs are underrepresented and can be restricted in the variety of roles offered, particularly on TV where characters suffer from a process known as "othering" -- deliberately portraying a group as different or alien.

He said, "Generally, BEAs are playing people in Japan and China. You get asked at auditions 'Can you be more Chinese!?'"

"For a lot of parts, directors are still trying to fly people in from Asia and America because they are deemed more 'authentic.'"

"I'm optimistic about the future and things are happening in the theater where it is easier to escape typecasting. But the big leveler is TV because theater casts on the back of it, and it's still very difficult to build a career as a BEA in TV."

Sheen says part of the problem is that the senior levels of TV are still predominantly white, male and educated at elite universities.

While she welcomes plays like "The Great Wave", she would like to see more investment into plays about ordinary BEAs and written by BEAs. She says the playwrights are out there and it is up to the theaters to be bold and commission the work.

Sheen has campaigned against yellowface and notes significant progress has been made. She hopes it will never happen again but believes such discriminatory views are pervasive.

She said, "I just want to be known as an actor. This is my country and culture and I should be able to participate fully in it, but I'm currently marginalized. Diversity does sell at the box office and yet there's still resistance to fully embrace and exploit it."

Actress Kirsty Rider, who starred in "The Great Wave", says that so far she has been given more opportunities in theater than in TV "as theater seems more able and willing to challenge the societal boundaries and limitations that exist around race and gender within casting."

She continued, "For instance my first part was in the classic 'Pride and Prejudice' at the Regents Park Open Air Theatre, where it wasn't an issue that siblings were different races. It didn't hinder the story or the audience's investment in it.

"What I'd love to see more of is, not necessarily 'colorblind casting', but actually stories where an actor's race and culture are celebrated and embraced, not just ignored."

"I feel I'm much more likely to get a lead role if it specifically requires someone with East Asian heritage but that has just been my experience so far."

Rider, who has mixed British/Japanese heritage, said, "My agent said it (her race) would close and also open doors."

She says she finds instances of yellowface "heartbreaking."

She said, "In the current state of our industry I feel that positive discrimination is the only practical, active way of reaching equity as well as equality."

Rider thinks it is okay for minority ethnic actors to portray "white" characters but not the other way around.

She said, "This is not only because ethnic minorities have suffered a history of oppression by the white majority, but also because there are still fewer opportunities for people of color in this industry.

"Therefore, the choice of having people of color play previously perceived "white" characters is in line with striving for equality, inclusion and representation for all whereas, when the practice of whitewashing (when white actors are cast in historically non-white character roles) is done, it is not."

Equity, the actors' trade union, has called for greater diversity and "inclusive casting" to ensure a level-playing field for minority ethnic actors and an authentic reflection of British audiences.

The organization believes that artists from diverse backgrounds should be considered more seriously for any role, and not confined solely to those written with their own personal characteristics in mind.