Dartmouth playwright cancels Chinese opera inspired play after criticism of cultural appropriation

HALIFAX – A Dartmouth playwright has cancelled his latest play just days before it was set to open, amid criticism the production was culturally insensitive.

Black Dragon Mountain, a play by writer and producer Roy Ellis, was supposed to open Thursday evening at Bus Stop Theatre on Gottingen Street.

The play, described as a “modern fable,” was told in the form of a traditional Peking opera, including the costumes and makeup associated with the Chinese theatre style.

“We felt that we were going to use elements of Peking opera style makeup in a way that was respectful, which had influenced us, we liked and we admired,” Ellis said Tuesday.

“That appears to have been foolhardy as we look back now and we think about what’s happened.”

Ellis was inspired to write the play after a trip to China and had spent four years on the project.

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He says the production had always intended to cast Chinese actors and they had actively sought them out. However, despite translating the casting call to Chinese and reaching out to community groups like the Dalhousie Chinese Students and Scholars Society, they were unable to find the actors.

Ellis says the production decided to go ahead with a mostly Caucasian cast.

Roy Ellis cancelled the showings of the play Black Dragon Mountain after a public outcry over the casting of Caucasian actors in Chinese roles. Paul DeWitt/Global News

When promotional photos featuring the actors in full costume and makeup was released, backlash followed on social media.

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“People were saying it was cultural appropriation, that there could be exoticism, Orientalism, the sexualization of Asian women. Pretty much everything that you could say and this is without seeing the play, this is before the play was seen,” Ellis said.

“My heart leapt and I wondered if this is going to get ugly. And people really did get upset and incredibly offended and hurt.”

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Ellis says the actors other members of the production took a few days to talk and assess the situation. He then decided to cancel the play and refund all the tickets that had been sold.

“There’s no rule book, there’s no book that you can look at and say, ‘what is culturally appropriate, how many actors, which director, which culture?’ It’s not there,” Ellis said.

“There’s nothing like that so you have to use your best spirits and I think I trusted mine but they failed me.”

Albert Lee, a research associate at Gorsebrook Research Institute who specializes in early Chinese history in the Maritimes, thinks the play evoked such strong reactions because it brings back memories of racist depictions of Asian characters.

“Back in the early ’40s and ’50s when there was a lot more discrimination against the Chinese, they were considered like the yellow menace,” Lee said.

“Hollywood depicted them as very shrewd, played their cards close to their chest. And they were always portrayed by westerners with makeup and slanted eyes…they never had real Chinese actors or actresses.”

Lee agrees there is a lack of Chinese Canadian artists in the region, but disagrees with the decision to cast non-Asian actors in the roles despite the best best intentions.

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“It could be misinterpreted by some people for example or give people the wrong impression,” Lee said.

Ellis is now apologizing to the Chinese community and plans to work with the cultural and arts groups to spark a conversation about cultural identity in theatre.

He has helped to organize a roundtable discussion at Bus Stop Theatre on Friday at 7 p.m., in place of that night’s showing of Black Dragon Mountain.

Ellis, the cast and crew of the play will be addressing the issues and are encouraging the public to attend.

As for the play, Ellis has no plans to revive it.

“I’m done with it,” he said.

“I’m going to put it away and seal it and put it in my filing cabinet and say ‘[I] grew as a writer, grew as a human’…I’ve got so many plays to write and they’re a little closer to home.”

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