June 20, 2011
By Kris Vire
In a beguiling blend of fact and fiction, Hwang skewers his own famous stance on race in the theater in this 2007 work. His starting point is the 1990 fracas over the Broadway casting of the white actor Jonathan Pryce as the Asian lead of Miss Saigon; Hwang, fresh off his Tony win for M. Butterfly, led the ultimately unsuccessful appeal to Actors’ Equity to block this instance of “yellow face” casting. The conflict inspired Hwang’s next play, Face Value, which notoriously flopped, closing in previews on Broadway in 1992.
Here’s where Hwang departs from reality. His Yellow Face stand-in, DHH (David Rhee), accidentally casts a white actor as the Asian lead of Face Value. Panicked by the implications, DHH frantically invents an Asian ancestry for the actor, Marcus (Clayton Stamper), who embraces his new heritage all too enthusiastically. When Marcus goes on to become an activist for Asian-American causes, DHH chafes at this cultural tourism. But if Marcus is genuine in his devotion and genuinely doing good, the play ultimately asks us, who gets to decide who’s authentic enough?
Hwang’s mix of characters creates its own witty comment on color-blind casting: Public figures such as Sen. Fred Thompson and producer Cameron Mackintosh are played by an Asian-American woman (ensemble member Tanya McBride) without our blinking an eye. Scott’s clean, spare staging is paced effectively, even if Hwang’s script begins to feel self-indulgent by the time a New York Times reporter is repeatedly identified as “Name Withheld on Advice of Counsel.” Yellow Face is ultimately worth the reflection.