By David Hennessy
“There’s nothing wrong with asking someone where they’re from but when you ask: ‘Where are you really from?’ says Davina Perera, the half Irish actress currently appearing in Yellow Face, a play that takes a humorous look at racial stereotypes and issues around racial identity.
David Henry Hwang is both the playwright and Yellow Face’s protagonist. The play begins with David protesting vehemently against the casting of a white actor in Miss Saigon but this sets him up for a big fall when he makes the mistake himself of casting a Caucasian actor in his play, Face Value.
Struggling to find an Asian actor who fits the part, David turns to Marcus G Dahlman, played by Ben Starr, taking him to be mixed race although not looking Asian.
Kevin Shen plays the playwright who immorally sacks his star for being white but then when the same actor goes on to speak about Asian issues, David delights in seeing the “ethnic tourist” hounded by the racially motivated authorities.
Davina reveals although the play creates discussion about race, it is something people often don’t know how to bring up: “They always seem a little bit cautious after seeing the show about asking us where we are from. I think when you’re someone like me, you have to expect it because Sri Lankans look at me and they know I’m not Sri Lankan, Indians will look at me and know I’m not Indian, the Irish will look at me and know I’m not Irish. Only once in my life has someone got it right, once guessed Irish-Sri Lankan. Don’t know how they did it. I was gobsmacked.
“Someone once said to me: ‘What’s your combination?’ I was like: ‘What, for my school locker?’ My husband has a friend who once, before he met me, saw a picture and said: ‘Oh, she’s very.. international looking’. People are so afraid of saying the wrong thing and I think it’s a shame because it’s just become far too PC and there are extremes of both sides.
“I can understand why people have a curiosity when someone looks different to what they’re used to, they do want to know what their heritage is and what makes them look the way they look.”
Davina’s mother is from Belfast while her father’s side of the family is Sri Lankan. Davina has performed on Broadway last year in 80 Days around the World. She could have reprised her role in this piece but opted instead to be a part of Yellow Face, turning down a lead role.
Yellow Face also features Gemma Chan of Fresh Meat and Dates. Ben Starr spoke in his interview about how Asian actors often encounter stereotyping. Is this something Davina has encountered? “I’m very lucky in that I’ve not been massively typecast but unless a TV role specifically says any ethnicity or Asian, I won’t get suggested for it. The industry in this country is very white dominated and it’s hard for mixed race people as well but it’s getting better slowly.
Her current role calls for Davina to play both men and women of different races as all the actors, apart from Kevin and Ben who remain as David and Marcus, take on several different roles: “It’s such blind casting. It has to be a piece like this.”
The news that Yellow Face was transferring to The National Theatre after its successful run at Park Theatre last year was exciting news from the very beginning but Davina had to think long and hard before signing on as she is now six and a half months pregnant with her first baby due in August: “I did have to think about it a lot because the news that it was transferring came up very early (in my pregnancy) and I didn’t know whether I should say something because I was still early in the first trimester so I just held on until I was in that safety zone of 12 weeks and then I told them.
“I just said: ‘So you know- I’m pregnant’. It turned out they were absolutely thrilled to have a pregnant woman because it ticked another box for them!
“Being a woman in this industry is hard enough. I’ve heard of people getting dropped by their agents because they’re pregnant and I did live with that fear: ‘Am I killing my career by wanting to start a family?’ But my agent’s been amazing and very supportive and how many pregnant women have been on the stages here is incredible and showing much more than I am as well so it eased my mind. Hearing how many pregnant women have been employed is just wonderful, it’s just not promoted enough. You don’t have to stop just because you’ve got a bit of a belly.”
What was it like for London-born Davina to grow up with an interesting mix of Irish and Sri Lankan? “They’re both cultures where family and cultural identity is very important so the passion that they both have transcends any cultural differences so there’s a mutual respect. I have early childhood memories of my mum, an Irish woman, wearing a sari and cooking curry for Sri Lankan family and my dad, although I don’t remember it, there are lots of pictures of him in Ireland. The two cultures really compliment each other and for my wedding, my husband’s Cornish, we had a mixture of Irish, Sri Lankan and Cornish.”
Davina has family in Belfast and Cork and loves to visit a town in the Banner county: “My husband actually works in Ennis. He’s over there quite regularly and I go over as much as I can with him because it is the most beautiful place. Whenever I go over there, I stock up on things like Kimberley biscuits and Mikados, they’re like a childhood favourite.”
Yellow Face is at the National until May 24. For more information, go to: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/.