Hollywood’s whitewashing is as blatant as ever—consider anything from Mickey Rooney’s racist depiction of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s to the recent casting of Emma Stone in Cameron Crowe’s Aloha as a character of quarter-Chinese, quarter-Hawaiian descent. The same whitewashing can be said for the theatre. Think Jonathan Pryce’s role, throughout the 1990s, as the Engineer in Miss Saigon, a Vietnam War–era musical reimagining of Giacomo Puccini’s opera, Madame Butterfly. The productions were wildly popular, and the story is wildly fraught, following the doomed romance between an exoticized Asian woman and her white lover. This is the social landscape where David Henry Hwang’s 2007 play, Yellow Face, comes in, a humorous and messy “unreliable memoir” that serves both as self- and cultural portrait.
Presented by People Productions and directed by Kerry Lee, “Yellow Face” is a farcical, semi-autobiographical depiction of Hwang (or DHH), played energetically by Michael Havey. With the uproar over the casting of Pryce in Miss Saigon, DHH emerges yet again as an outspoken and celebrated Asian American activist. The racial controversy, however, grows enough that, when asked to appear at a rally, DHH says, “I think this is starting to make us [Asian Americans]—look bad.” Of course, DHH has an identity crisis, as he worries that he is no longer an “Asian American role model,” writes a follow-up play, and then mistakenly casts a white actor, Marcus G. Dahlman (Cody V. Thompson), in the leading role, believing him to be mixed race. DHH ends up frantically trying to cover up his mistake, insisting that the actor take the stage name, “Marcus Gee,” and playing up the fact that Marcus is a “Siberian Jew.” Despite being fired from the play, which eventually closed before opening, and not actually being Asian at all, Marcus goes on to champion the Asian American cause, and the first act ends with Hwang’s shock at discovering Marcus as the lead in The King and I.
Throughout is a spirited back-and-forth. Aside from Havey and true to the play’s theme, the multicultural, seven-ensemble cast each play a number of characters, blind to race and gender, ranging from reporters to politicians to student activists to famous Asian Americans—names are pointedly not changed. At one point, Wendy Dang plays an over-the-top and inordinately macho Asian American actor, McKenna Jensen a demure Jane Krakowski, and Lily Hye Soo Dixon a previous romantic interest of DHH’s, who accuses DHH of thinking her music was too white (“like the way you used to criticize me for listening to The Cure?”). One of the most charming parts of the play is the banter between DHH and his father, Henry Y. Hwang (HYH). Jefferson Itami is delightful and remarkably on-point in depicting the Chinese immigrant, who finds himself living the American dream as the head of a small Californian bank, wants to start a group called “Chinese American Republican Bankers for Bill Clinton,” and considers himself a Frank Sinatra, if you will, who likes to do things “My Way!”
The play was surprising, jolting viewers from one quick-fire exchange to the next. The first act was entertainingly erratic, often portraying DHH as a bit comic-strip: He’s foolish and unfortunate, caught in a personal identity crisis and a wider political one—but the second act bordered on the jagged and hasty. It begins similarly, yet soon explodes into longer scenes that bring up wider issues of the time, such as the profiling—and general otherization—of Chinese Americans as spies for the People’s Republic of China. (Wen Ho Lee, for example, was a Chinese-American nuclear scientist who was imprisoned in solitary confinement for nine months and eventually released). DHH’s own father goes from comic relief to tragic figure as the government investigates him for money laundering for the Central Bank of China, and he eventually falls ill. Perhaps the most disheartening line of the play was HYH’s, as he says, haltingly, “I used to believe in America, but I don’t anymore … because the system doesn’t play fair.” It seems like an obvious statement, but when heard in the context of DHH’s grappling with his father’s mortality, it illustrates the bleakness of the American dream in light of being Asian—of donning the yellow face wherever you go, and not just for a role. In perhaps the longest scene of the play, DHH meets with a reporter for The New York Times (identified as “Name Withheld on Advice of Counsel” and played chillingly by Adam Tyler). The exchange feels a little drawn out, but DHH’s moment of insight comes when he asks the reporter to clarify the difference between “White American” and “Chinese American,” and the implicit racism becomes clear.
Yellow Face is capricious—it toys with the meta, it consolidates reality and fiction, and it’s centered on the extremely personal wanderings of DHH before throwing the audience in for large-scale racial topics: the multicultural debate in a globalizing world, the championing of “Asian American” as a coalition. The cast was spirited in their many roles, and they do well in imparting the tidbits that lend to a better understanding of what it means to live as an Asian American—the many nuances and multitudes of that identity, as well as the abundant issues faced in the ’90s that are still salient today. The personal and social aspects of Yellow Face ground one another, the way that personal actions are often inherently political, that institutional racism is most deeply felt on a personal level, that art is often one of the only ways to convey injustice. The more often that we can allow non-mainstream narratives the stage, the better—more of this, please!
By David Henry Hwang; directed by Kerry Lee; lighting by Glenn Linder; technical director, Rob Marker; stage manager, Nan Weber. A production by People Productions, presented at Sugar Space Arts Warehouse, 132 S. 800 W.; May 29–June 14; Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m.; tickets at peopleproductions.org.
With: Wendy Dang, Lily Hye Soo Dixon, Michael Tadashi Havey, Jefferson Itami, McKenna Jensen, Cody V. Thompson.