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picture - Yellow FaceTheater Review

by John Topping

published December 14, 2007


Yellow Face

now playing Off Broadway at the Public Theater

through December 30




David Henry Hwang, the playwright who has given us the Broadway productions of M. Butterfly, Aida and Tarzan, is Asian.  It would not be necessary to mention this, that he is Asian, except that his new Off Broadway play at the Public Theater, Yellow Face, is all about casting Asians in plays – whether that be casting Asians as Asians, or Caucasians as Asians, or Asians as Caucasians, as all of these are touched on directly or indirectly.  The latter, casting Asians as Caucasians, is the indirect example, as most of the supporting cast plays various roles, which are not necessarily assigned according to their race or gender.  Additionally, the main character in Yellow Face is a playwright; in fact, he is the playwright of this very play, David Henry Hwang (or DHH in writing, to separate playwright from character), who is played by the actor Hoon Lee, who looks Asian to these Caucasian eyes, although, after seeing this play, you can’t really be sure what race anyone is.  And that’s the point.  I think.


Tony award winner (for M. Butterfly) David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face is the story of David Henry Hwang, the Tony-winning author of M. Butterfly (a dramatization of the opera Madame Butterfly), who, after winning the Tony for M. Butterfly, gained clout in the Broadway scene.  According to the play, he felt that the triumph of M. Butterfly was a landmark that would put an end to the long tradition (in both theater and film) of casting Caucasians to play Asians – usually badly (or, at least, condescendingly).  But not long after DHH won the Tony for writing M. Butterfly, a brouhaha erupted over the Broadway casting of Caucasian actor Jonathan Pryce in the role he created in London, an Asian pimp, in the (dreadful but wildly successful) musical Miss Saigon.  Hwang was a vocal opponent of this racially insensitive casting, and wrote a letter to Actors’ Equity expressing his outrage – which had much pull in the controversy.  But instead of continuing to be a high-profile supporter of casting Asians as Asians, his feelings changed at the realization that he had unwittingly enrolled himself into being the spokesperson for the cause.  For reasons that he (or rather, his character; i.e., himself) explains in the play, he removed himself from the eye of the storm, disappointing the entire Asian acting community; but he felt and rationalized that he had done his part, and watched with semi-helplessness as the casting of Jonathan Pryce won over (which enabled the musical to give a slew of jobs to actual, bona fide Asian actors, although this is rarely if ever mentioned, this play included).  The reasons he gives for backing out are logical and clear from his point of view, but nonetheless reeks of a certain cowardliness, so he has lost our empathy and his own integrity, and the evening has barely begun.


He is generally confounded by his father, a wealthy Los Angeles banker who opened the first Asian American bank in the country, and who is also Asian, and is played by Francis Jue, who is probably Asian (or, in any case, he “looks” Asian).  Dad is kooky and contrary and loves loves loves America and the American dream and drives DHH insane (not literally).  A phone conversation between irascible father and bewildered son triggers the inspiration for DHH’s next play, Face Value, which will be all about the casting of Asian characters, and will have, as its centerpiece, Asian characters (played by Asian actors) who put on whiteface to look Caucasian (in order that, perhaps, as white actors, they might have a chance at being cast as Asians?).  In the audition process, they run into the same problem about which the producers of Miss Saigon had lamented: they want, they really really want to cast an Asian actor, but … gulp … in the entire national theater community, they can’t find anyone who’s right for the part.  Through a mishap, they end up casting Marcus, an actor (played by Noah Bean) who doesn’t look Asian at all, and who – except for what might be called a longshot technicality of his heritage – isn’t; but they manage to convince themselves with this technicality that he is authentically of damned near almost 50% Asian heritage.  Then they successfully convince the activist Asian community that he is Asian, and the actor becomes a leader for the cause of Asians and Asian actors – even though he is (or at least the character is) quite clearly 100%, without a doubt, absolutely and obviously white. 


Racial confusion and the inherent ridiculousness of racism is certainly not an unexplored area.  For example, before playwright Mark Twain brought his recent Is He Dead? to Broadway, he was also a fairly well-respected novelist (one of his books was the inspiration for the 1970s television series The New Adventures of Huck Finn), including one of his lesser known but equally estimable novels called Pudd’nhead Wilson, in which a Caucasian baby and a very light-skinned African American baby are switched in their cradles and grow up with, essentially, the opposite fates than their original labels would have assigned.  An even more pertinent artistic example even bleeds into real life.  In John Cassavettes’ movie Shadows, Lelia Goldoni (Italian American) and Hugh Hurd (African American) are cast as brother and sister, making a statement about racism and humanity by not drawing any attention to it within the film (this was 1959, long before color-blind casting became a mini-vogue).  As a result of the film’s success, Goldoni had subsequent trouble being cast in white roles because no one believed that she wasn’t black (source: Lelia Goldoni). 


So this is rich material, a goldmine to explore.  And it is a very interesting story that Hwang has to tell.  The problem is, it’s a vastly more interesting story than it is an interesting play.  A lot of transitions heavily employ the text of news headlines and excerpts spoken by the actors.  DHH is as much narrator as character, if not more so.  It longs to be snappy, cutting from scene to scene like a film, so much that it feels mired as a piece of theater.  But even better than seeing it as a film would be reading it.  It’s quite a yarn.


Quite.  A.  Yarn.  In.  Deed.


The character of DHH lacks empathy on almost all fronts.  Even though he addresses the egotistical chutzpah of not changing his name for dramatic purposes (and getting a hearty chuckle when the play turns inside out and becomes self-referential), it draws attention to the affront more than it forgives it.


If you happened to see the film of Margaret Cho’s live show I’m The One That I Want (or the live show itself), she tells a heartbreaking story (amidst the side-splitting laughter) of her painful and humiliating experience in her short-lived Asian American TV series All-American Girl, wherein she was encouraged to perpetuate Asian stereotypes rather than transcend them or tackle them.  It doesn’t help DHH’s empathy problem to learn that Hwang was hired to work on the show, and buckled to participating on the offensive side of her misery.  Granted, the compromises to integrity that he (once again) made were probably equally as painful to him, but ... who is this guy?  What is he really trying to tell us?  Is he trying to redeem himself by baring his betrayal of his own standards in front of an audience?


Would that he were.  But we can’t even wallow in the rawness of what we thought were the honest emotions that his story tells, because, as it turns out, Marcus is a character who has been completely fabricated for this play, and so have mountains of significant events that we sat through, largely, to lend comfort to the autobiographer.  We gave Hwang our trust that, even though this is not particularly compelling theater, at least we can feel the pain of what you went through as a fellow human being – and how brave of you to allow yourself to be exposed in an unflattering light.  But he didn’t go through this as a human being; he went through it as a playwright.  He took a true event, embellished it, dramatized it to some extent (but not nearly enough), then kept the real names of familiar players intact (B.D. Wong, Cameron Mackintosh, and the New York Times journalist [Name Withheld On Advice Of Counsel], to name just three – if indeed [Name Withheld On Advice Of Counsel] really was a part of the story) to lend it credibility and string us along, and then pulls the rug out from under us.  I suppose we’re to be grateful that he comes clean about his dishonesty.  I guess that’s where my patience snapped.


johntopping @



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