AI PROFILE Yellow Earth and British soil

AI PROFILE   Kumiko Mendl, artistic director of Yellow Earth Theatre

We have become familiar with the acronym BAME referring to an identifiable section of British society now classified as Black Asian and Ethnic Minority, and that it is a section that has always been vulnerable to racism, subject of a number of powerful books, films, plays and television.

But an even more discriminated against group at the moment is BEA Britons. No-one knows how many there are in the UK because the census does not differentiate, but an unofficial estimate puts it at about 1,140,000 and they are currently experiencing ostracism so overt that passengers avoid sitting next to BEA members on public transport.

They are British East Asians, the fastest growing immigrant group in the country, whose cultural origins are in the 19 countries of the Far East, from Brunei to Vietnam and including China and Japan.

And collectively they are the victims of ignorant assumptions that because of the way they look they are carriers and transmitters of disease. It is a response to the current coronavirus pandemic, but it is not new. “There are those who will jump on this to turn on Asian people” says Kumiko Mendl. “That sort of sentiment is much more prevalent now than it used to be: if you’re Asian you're dirty, you eat wild meat, you’re carrying the virus”. 

BEA Britons are also providing a growing body of dramatic art, on stage, TV and film set, and the raw reality of their present experience in social life will certainly become a script, though not yet. Kumiko Mendl is artistic director of Yellow Earth Theatre which is the only touring company founded to promote and present the work of BEA writers, actors, designers and director, and this year Yellow Earth is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

Mendl is a co-founder of the company, behind the playwright, actor and director David KS Tse as artistic director, who wrote the first production, New Territories (pictured above), about the experiences of a young Hong Kongolese man settling in Britain. 

She is a cultural mongrel in that her father, a Jewish German, came to Britain in 1936 aged eight; he became a Quaker and travelled the world as a Society of Friends teacher, meeting her Japanese mother in Tokyo where she was teaching with the Friends. The family settled in Watford.

She became  interested in acting at school but eschewed drama school – “I thought it was for posh people” – and instead studied theatre and teaching at the University of East Anglia, though teaching at the time lost its allure when she failed to break through the heavy Norfolk accents of the pupils. While still a student she went on a hitchhiking holiday through some of the most strife-torn countries of South America, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador where she even met the nephew of the assassinated Nicaraguan president, General Somoza. After her return a fellow student proposed an epic play about Nicaragua, a largely amateur production in which she was cast and toured for two years.

A professional fellow cast member suggested she should be trained, and Mendl was interested in tracing her Asian cultural background, a very physical theatre, so went to Paris for two years to study movement in theatre at Jacques Lecoq’s school – where she shared classes with the actor Toby Jones. Then she spent a year in Edinburgh returning to London to become movement director on a theatre production based on the Chinese legend of Mulan.

Mendl then joined Vicky Ireland’s Magic Paintbrush show for Polka Theatre, where she met David Tse and, with three others, they decided to start their own BEA touring company, with Tse as artistic director. They called it Yellow Earth named after Chen Kaige’s seminal 1984 Chinese film.

“I was very interested in devising and creating my own work, looking into my own heritage – we were fed up being offered little Asian roles” she says, “We were interested in Asian art forms and Western art forms, and storytelling art forms, making hybrids. It’s quite physical theatre, and East Asian theatre is total”. Another of the founders was a wushu martial arts champion, for instance; two had been trained in traditional Beijing opera, two had also had Western theatre training, and Mendl herself had some training in Japanese No theatre.

The touring repertoire was a mixture of Asian and Western plays, one of the most successful being a stage version of Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills in which the adult largely BEA cast used Gloucestershire accents to become Forest of Dean seven-year-olds. In 2017 they toured an all-female cast for its production of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine.

Visitors to the Cutty Sark and National Maritime Museum in recent years will have encountered a character guide in the guise of the historical figure of John Robson, a Chinese-born sailor found as a baby adrift in the South China Sea by a British crew, brought up in Limehouse and who served on the tea clipper for ten years. He is played by a Yellow Earth actor, and the company also ran a six-month project for schools at the British Museum as part of the 2008 Terracotta Army among other museum collaborations.  

Amy Ng's Under the Umbrella from 2019, a co-production with Belgrade Theatre in association with Tamasha. Picture credit, Robert Day

Two children with her journalist partner came along, and rather than tour she concentrated on outreach work , teaching movement and leading workshops, as well as starting her own Japanese storytelling company with Ireland, A Thousand Cranes. When Mendl became artistic director in 2011, however, she focussed on Yellow Earth, only becoming full time when the company became an Arts Council national portfolio organisation in 2018.

ACE funding gives Yellow Earth the funding muscle to pursue theatre making in BEA idioms, but, says Mendl, it can still only do it with the network of funders and supporters, partners and collaborators and the 15 tour venues around the country that has been built over a quarter of a century.

For ten years now the Yellow Earth Academy has provided summer schools for actors, and this is now being extended to Manchester and Birmingham. Its professional writers’ programme has just completed its first two years with four up-and-coming playwrights, and Yellow Earth is now trawling for the next four.

BEA artists are beginning to break into our living rooms.  Katie Leung came to fame as the love interest in the Harry Potter films for instance, and Benedict Wong, who was in Yellow Earth’s first production, plays Mr Wickfield in Armando Iannucci’s new film,The Personal History of David Copperfield.  

“There is no shortage of BEA talent, and a very deep mine of drama material that hasn’t been tapped yet” Mendl says. “And with new opportunities through outlets like Netflix and streaming attitudes are changing. But we’re interested in theatre-making as well, in immersive theatre or instance, and we’re working with the Arcola this year and Oxford’s North Wall Theatre on a new play by Kyo Choi, Apology (about the scandal of the Korean ‘comfort women’ of the Second World War).

“Oh, we have a great deal to say.”

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