June 20, 2011
By Ruth Smerling
Everything David Henry Hwang touches turns to absolute gold. In 1988 he shook up the theatergoing population with the shocking and unbelievable story of a male Chinese Opera star who fooled a French diplomat for over 20 years into believing he was a woman. M. Butterfly is still talked about, referred to and quoted extensively. The story is unbelievable, nearly evil, but did anyone walk out of the theatre without being changed in some way? It was exhilarating. Hwang (pronounced Wong) is not afraid to get visceral. His latest work, Yellow Face, is full speed on the Silk Road, directed by the esteemed and acclaimed Goodman Theatre Associate, Steve Scott. This story is a lot lighterhearted, but just as profound, examining the inner workings of an award winning playwright’s process, the politics of theatre casting and how much of an impact art has on life.
Chicago native David Rhee, pursued by Broadway and swept up for screen roles left and right, comes home to take the lead role of David Henry Hwang. Rhee’s youth, ambition and conviction create a convincing playwright struggling for his next hit work. This play finds Hwang, like the rest of the Asian artist coalition, is outraged over the casting of Jonathan Pryce as the Asian pimp in Ms. Saigon. As an influential member of the Asian community, Hwang is called upon to make some noise in protest. Before he proceeds, he must take his family into consideration. Joseph Anthony Foronda gets a round of applause as his father, a successful banker who clawed his way up from the shackles of Asian stereotypes to become a successful and credible businessman with a passion for Frank Sinatra. Foronda has a gift for comedy
The story heats up when the tables are turned. Hwang, just like the French diplomat in Ms. Saigon, is wowed by a young, charismatic actor (Clayton Stamper) and casts him in his next play, about Asian life. In the course of his casting and pitching, he creates a glamorous lifestyle, dropping names of Hollywood stars, politicians and Bill Clinton threatens to show up everywhere. He soon finds out that the young actor he’s hung a star on, Marcus, receiving all kinds of critical attention and press, is not Asian and could not be more American. The only thing that may save him is his remote Russian Jewish heritage. They try to pass him off as a Siberian Jew, like Yul Brynner. They keep the sham up as long as the play is making money, but soon the jig is up and everyone must come to grips with an identity crisis as explosive as 911, when they must face who they are, how they are limited by who they are and what boundaries they have crossed under the banner of theatrical license.
Yellow Face is not a straightforward narrative and it’s not at all politically correct. Each character is actually Hwang’s manifestation of some fear or frustration he needs to conquer. He gets pretty tough with himself too. The story unfolds in moments of thought, grief and fear. The exquisitely choreographed ensemble, echo the playwright’s deepest anxieties loud enough to have been shouted into the Grand Canyon. A highlight of the work is the superb performances by incredible Chicago actors, Lydia Berger, Tanya McBride, Christopher Meister and Christopher Popio as they morph lightning quick into a multitude of characters, each one rich, quirky and distinctive.
Yellow Face is delightful entertainment, with a cast of brilliant and disciplined actors. Every moment is a treasure.