nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 9, 2007
Everybody probably knows what "blackface" means: it's the embarrassing, politically incorrect, once pervasive practice of having a white performer literally blacken his or her skin to play a (stereotyped) African or African American character. The look and style of blackface performance became so institutionalized that at one time even black performers had to literally apply blackface makeup if they were to be accepted on stage.
So "yellowface," by extension, is the same phenomenon applied to Asian Americans, and though it's just as embarrassing and politically incorrect as blackface, it is not entirely extinct. As recently as 1990, playwright David Henry Hwang found himself leading the charge against producer Cameron Mackintosh's decision to put Jonathan Pryce in the lead of the musical Miss Saigon, even though the role called for a Eurasian. Hwang and his supporters (which initially included Actors Equity) argued that after decades of white actors donning "yellowface" and thus denying Asian actors opportunities, it was morally and ethically wrong for a white actor to play "Asian" when so many competent Asian actors were available. Mackintosh countered that artistic freedom dictated that the most qualified person should be cast in the role, regardless of his/her ethnicity. (One suspects that, in this context, the "most qualified person" might be dictated by commercial as well as aesthetic principles, but let that go.)
It is this debate that underlies, and fuels, Hwang's newest play, the startling, exquisite, and ultimately profound Yellow Face. It is unabashedly autobiographical, and though it starts off resembling one of those almost-campy tell-all memoirs where axes get grinded and agendas get served, as Yellow Face unfolds it becomes clear that Hwang is really crafting something that's at once deeper, subtler, and more complex. In the end, this play is a journey through compromise, accommodation, and circumstance; through celebrity, controversy, and family. The David Henry Hwang of the last scene is a far different man from the Hwang of the first scene—a sadder but wiser one. The trick of this masterful script is that this transformation—its nature and the vehicle by which it is accomplished—is so sly and unexpected that I, for one, never saw it coming.
Which is why I'm reluctant to say too much about what happens in Yellow Face; like the flaming drinks that Auntie Mame serves the Upsons in the classic play and film, all of its ingredients are a secret. The Miss Saigon flap and its aftermath—which coincide chronologically with the failure of Hwang's follow-up to M. Butterfly, the play Face Value—are the focus of Act I of Yellow Face; while Hwang's relationship with his father, a successful California banker (he was, the play tells us, the first Asian American to be granted a federal bank charter), dominates the second half.
Lots of familiar figures find their way into this story, everybody from B.D. Wong (Tony winning star of M. Butterfly) to Mark Linn-Baker to Senator Fred Thompson. Nobody invoked here is safe from Hwang's incisive scrutiny, least of all the highly-placed American perpetrators of an attempted anti-Chinese witch hunt (ultimately thwarted only by 9/11); Yellow Face investigates briefly the case of nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, who was wrongly accused of espionage, in its most harrowing section.
But Hwang and director Leigh Silverman keep the play from ever feeling polemical and indeed the entertainment quotient is exceedingly high. This is surely in part due to the fine cast, which is led by Hoon Lee, who is disarming and introspective as "DHH" (as the playwright lists himself in the character list), and Noah Bean, who is terrific as a charismatic young actor named Marcus who is supposed to play one of the leads in the misbegotten Face Value. Five other players take on dozens of roles among them, and they all do outstanding work. Francis Jue steals the show as Hwang's expansive, ultra-capitalist father and also as a boisterous Asian American student activist; and Kathryn A. Layng has at least one pricelessly golden moment when she stands center stage and announces, with great assurance, that she is Jane Krakowski. Julienne Hanzelka Kim, Lucas Caleb Rooney, and Anthony Torn complete the ensemble.
One thing you may wonder about is whether Hwang still thinks as he once did about "yellowface." The eclectic casting choices here provide some of the answer—perhaps we are all finally ready to move to a new place of equal opportunity in every sense that can be interpreted; I hope so. I'd like to think, too, that Hwang himself has taken the message of this play genuinely to heart: that the face he's wearing nowadays—writing smart, beautiful, touching plays like this one— is, finally, his own.