June 20, 2011
By John Olson
If you (like me) are unaware of the circumstances surrounding the Broadway production of David Henry Hwang's Face Value—his next play after M. Butterfly—that's an advantage in seeing Yellow Face. Yellow Face, first produced Off-Broadway in 2007, mixes events real and imagined about the casting of that Face Value in the aftermath of Hwang's leading of protests against casting of Caucasian Jonathan Pryce as a Eurasian in Miss Saigon. Hwang reveals what's real and what's not, but not until the very end, and as we know from M. Butterfly's story of a French diplomat who carries on a 20-year-long affair with a man all the while believing the man is a woman, Hwang has some experience in making the improbable seem believable.
In Yellow Face, Hwang is his own lead character, which might seem narcissistic if he weren't so critical of his own actions in leading the protests over Miss Saigon. In this play, after having led the charge against Saigon for allegedly taking a job away from a qualified Asian-American actor, Hwang finds himself in a similar position in casting the lead in Face Value. After deciding that B. D. Wong is not right for the role, he finds the perfect actor, a Caucasian he initially believes (falsely) to be of mixed Asian and Russian heritage. The public comes to believe the actor, Marcus G. Dahlman, who takes the more Asian-sounding name "Marcus Ghee," has the ethnicity he claims. Marcus becomes something of a Sinophile and celebrated activist for Asian-American causes himself.
The first act, concerned with the Miss Saigon controversy and Marcus' career as a high profile Asian American, is a bitingly funny satire of the theater business and cultural politics. Director Steve Scott has an amazingly talented ensemble play a variety of show business celebrities—like Cameron Macintosh, Frank Rich and Margaret Cho—with gender and age-bending casting that only enhances the caricatures Hwang draws. The only performers to play single roles are David Rhee as Hwang and Clayton Stamper as Marcus. Rhee is onstage most of the play, and he captures Hwang's amused befuddlement at the absurd elements of the theatre and racial politics. Rhee's Hwang juggles all sorts of contradictions: exasperation at the complete assimilation of his businessman father (a hilarious and loveable performance by Joseph Anthony Foronda, who's delightful in several other ensemble roles as well) and amusement at his growing belief that his opposition to Pryce in Miss Saigon may have been reverse discrimination itself and counter to principles of artistic freedom. Stamper makes a charmingly naive and earnest Marcus, going with the flow of his unexpected success as Asian-American celebrity with sincerity and no more than a hint of opportunism.
Yellow Face's second act gets into politics, extending the play's thesis that racial identity is a misleading construct. When Asian-American scientist Wen Ho Lee is accused of selling national secrets to the Communist Chinese, a witch hunt of Chinese Americans (real and perceived) ensues. It envelops Hwang's father, an Asian American as loyal to America and capitalist values as anyone could be, and Marcus—who's not even Asian, though he plays one on stage and in real life. Hwang contends that biological race is as meaningless as the "yellow face" stage makeup used to give actors an Asian complexion. The thematic connection between the two acts seems to be that as much as it's wrong to suspect biological Asians (or middle-Easterners or any other recent immigrant group) of having anti-American attitudes simply because of their race or ethnicity, it may be wrong to suggest a Caucasian actor can't or shouldn't play an Asian character. Intellectually, it's a defensible and intriguing position, but dramatically, the connections between the Pryce and the Wen Ho Lee incidents aren't readily apparent on a first viewing. Additionally, the first act's tone of sharp satire doesn't prepare us for the sudden shift to the political drama of the second act. In fact, the story moves away from Marcus and the theatre world in the first part of the second act, making us wonder for a time exactly where the story is headed.
Even so, the first act's comedy and the thoughtful philosophy and relevance of the topic of racial stereotyping and profiling make Yellow Face well worth the time. Scott's direction and cast, including leads Rhee, Foronda and Stamper as well as the versatile, expert ensemble (Lydia Berger, Tanya McBride, Christopher Meister and Christopher Popio), give the script a top-drawer reading. Tom Burch's simple but elegant Asian-influenced unit set and Matt Guither's smart costumes of business attire add to the production's sophistication and class.