June 29, 2011
By Jonathan Abarbanel
In Woody Allen's early comedy, Bananas, a crazed Latin American dictator declares Swedish as the official language. In Hollywood not long ago, artists with ethnic last names changed them to disguise their heritage. In my UIC theater class, my lecture on race in theater discusses blackface, yellowface, brownface and even whiteface (think Eddie Murphy). Do the ends justify the means, ever or always?
These things passed through my mind seeing Yellow Face, a complex dramedy that deals with a laundry list of seemingly disconnected issues, all of which boil down to this: What "face," of the many each of us has, do we present to the public? Does the world dictate how it perceives us, or do we dictate how the world perceives us?
The precipitating incident for Yellow Face was Hwang's vociferous public opposition to actor Jonathan Pryce playing the Asian (later made Eurasian) Engineer in the 1990 Broadway production of Miss Saigon. When producer Cameron Macintosh threatened cancellation, the show was allowed to proceed with Pryce, thereby providing dozens of high-paying jobs for performers. Since then, scores of Asian-American actors have played The Engineer, opportunities they wouldn't have had if Miss Saigon had been cancelled. Do the ends justify the means?
In Yellow Face, playwright David Henry Hwang exhibits his characteristic flare for structural and emotional mechanics. He incorporates a play-within-a-play, has actors taking multiple roles and mixes real and fictional characters caught up in both real and fictional events. Emotionally, he uses autobiography—Hwang and his father are characters—hints of paranoid-tinged political witch hunts and reverse assimilation.
Reverse assimilation? In the play's central event, an actor of European extraction persuasively establishes himself as Asian-American with unwitting assistance from Hwang. As Hwang's father says, speaking of the white-turned-Asian actor, "If I want to be Clark Gable or Frank Sinatra on the inside, why can't he be Raymond Ghee?" Feeling compromised and betrayed, Hwang must then examine his own identity (born and raised in American prosperity).
Yellow Face is very much is a character-driven comedy of ideas, but Hwang and director Steve Scott are far too astute ever to let the show bog down in talk or sound too intellectual. Its principal energies are visceral and emotional as Hwang tells a tale at once personal and professional. The engaging cast is lead by David Rhee (registering confusion so well as Hwang), Joseph Anthony Foranda gravely charming as Dad Hwang and Clayton Stamper as the almost-naive Raymond Ghee. Tom Burch's unit set for the 3/4 round stage features furniture cubes on a polished black floor, neutral but flexible and appropriate.
Go see Yellow Face, but be warned: A half-hour after thinking about it, you'll want to think about it again.