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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, August 12, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 32
Yellow Face a smart exploration of race
Arts & Entertainment
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Yellow Face a smart exploration of race

by Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

Yellow Face
ReAct Theatre
Through September 3


A mix of truth and fiction is behind David Henry Hwang's mockumentary Yellow Face. That's certainly an excellent description of this layered, funny, wry, and above all, deeply moving piece.

Yellow Face, written in 2007 and produced by ReAct Theatre, is an up-to-date fictionalized biography of this award-winning playwright, whose best-known work is M. Butterfly. Hwang described it in a 2007 interview as 'a play by an American playwright of Chinese descent, which is about a French diplomat who falls in love with a Chinese spy, which is told in terms of an Italian opera about a Japanese woman who falls in love with an American soldier.'

Yellow Face recaps that shortly after his success, Miss Saigon debuted in London with Jonathan Pryce, a white actor playing an Asian. Hwang and others protested Pryce's importation as the star to the Broadway production since they wanted to abolish the use of 'yellow face' (an Asian version of blackface).

The 'mock' part of the mockumentary begins as Hwang tries to cast his next (hopefully big and successful) play, Face Value, and ends up casting a white actor named Marcus as his main Asian character, justifying it by saying that mixed heritage Asians may not look very Asian anymore. We all know that this can be true and the play points to popular actors such as Keanu Reeves and others to make that point.

When Hwang wants to fire Marcus on the basis that he's not really Asian at all, he's advised by the legal team that non-discrimination laws forbid it and he has to be careful. One of the funniest, truest lines in the play is when he asks, 'People can be hired for their race, but not fired for it?' and the answer is, 'People usually don't sue when they get hired.'

So, Hwang publicly supports the mixed-race background of Marcus, calling him 'Marcus Gee' and twisting his Russian Jewish background into 'Siberian Asian Jewish.' Marcus becomes so enamored of feeling a part of the Asian community that he becomes more 'Asian' than Hwang, and Hwang is dogged by a character of his own making.

But the heart of the play is in Hwang's relationship with his father, an immigrant who came with nothing from China, and has become the chairman of a hugely successful American-Chinese bank. Henry Y. Hwang is portrayed as a bit naïve and does not realize just how dangerous life can become when the U.S. government decides that the bank may be a conduit for China's economic money-laundering.

Suddenly, the bank is being investigated, around the same time as noted scientist Wen Ho Lee is being investigated for allegedly giving classified information to China. Both investigations collapse after evidence is shown to be based on biased and twisted interpretations, but the damage is, as usual, catastrophic for those involved. Hwang shows his father as losing his faith in his adopted country - a deeply emotional moment in the play.

The play calls for dozens of quick cuts from news headlines and quotes from famous people. Some are about Hwang, early on, and some later include a handful of Republican lawmakers, who demonize China in 2000, as they currently demonize Islam. Ominous for 2011 are comments by Republicans that, after Osama bin Laden is caught, the next 'enemy' will be China.

Director David Hsieh keeps the energy up, though the quick cuts are a bit jarring and take time to get used to. Moses Yim plays 'DHH' (David Henry Hwang) and generally does a good job, but his lack of acting experience means he has a way to go to overcome awkward delivery and self-awareness. However, scenes with the father and later in the play, as Yim gets comfortable, are much better.

Lee Osorio plays Marcus Gee and does so with self-deprecating subtlety. You may find yourself almost vainly searching for his Asian background, just as the journalists and Asian students do in the play.

Henry Vu is David's dad along with other small roles and is a standout as the older, naïve immigrant who loves his country. Jeremy Behrens is another excellent ensemble player as he jumps from character to character, showing a surprising range. Stephanie Kim and Julia Beers also show great range in the variety of girlfriends and other roles they play, and Agastya Kohli acquits himself well as the narrator and in the ensemble.

Regardless of whether all the headlines and quotes are necessary, this is an extraordinarily accessible way to explore race and our personal identities. Hwang bravely makes fun of himself, but redeems himself in the end. The play hits Hwang and us in our political correctness and while it doesn't answer questions, it certainly stirs the pot. Make no mistake: this play is for everyone, not just Asian Americans. Go see it.

For more information, go to www.reacttheatre.org or call 206-364-3283.

Discuss your opinions with sgncritic@gmail.com.

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