June 22, 2011
By Barbara Vitello
Most actors want to “get it right.” That is to say, they want to uncover the truth about the characters they play and convey that to the audience.
When that truth is the playwright’s own, “getting it right” becomes even more important, Christopher Meister said. He co-stars in Silk Road Theatre Project’s production of David Henry Hwang’s “Yellow Face,” a semi-autobiographical comedy inspired by the making of “Face Value,” Hwang’s 1993 Broadway flop that closed before it officially opened.
The cast was determined to honor Hwang, said Meister, a Schaumburg High School graduate who earned his theater degree from the University of Missouri, where his classmates included “Mad Men” star Jon Hamm.
“We had three days of table reads, dissecting the play, talking about it,” Meister said.
Like his fellow ensemble members, Meister plays multiple roles in “Yellow Face,” which runs through July 17 at Chicago’s Historic Temple Building.
The production marks the first time Meister has worked with SRTP. He wanted to work with the company since seeing 2010s “Scorched,” which he called one of the best theatrical experiences he has had in Chicago.
“We have to get this right because it’s David’s life,” Meister said.
And Hwang was brave to write it, said Director Steve Scott, an artistic associate at Goodman Theatre, which has partnered with Silk Road several times over the last few years.
“He pokes merciless fun at himself, at his career and at his identity as an artist,” Scott said.
Scott, who worked with Hwang when he directed SRTP’s “The DNA Trail,” said audiences who know Hwang from his more serious, Tony Award-winning “M. Butterfly” will discover another side of the playwright with “Yellow Face” and “Chinglish,” a world premiere Hwang comedy opening June 27 at the Goodman.
Chicago’s salute to Hwang draws to a close late this summer when Halcyon Theatre presents Hwang’s comedy “Family Devotions,” beginning Aug. 11 at the Greenhouse Theater Center.
“He deals in wonderful human terms with very thorny issues,” Scott said.
At the same time, he’s very accessible and very funny, Scott added.
This backstage comedy is more than a chronicle of a failed production; it examines relationships, identity and how people define themselves by ethnicity and other preferences, Scott said.
“I read it when it came out and thought it was fascinating,” Scott said. “When they asked me to (direct) it, I jumped at the chance.”
Meister says the play’s message of the importance of finding and defining oneself crosses racial lines.
“You don’t have to be a certain race to feel these emotions,” he said.
“(Hwang) is not an Asian American writer, he’s a writer who has Asian-American characters,” Meister said. “He doesn’t have an agenda. He’s not sculpting your point of view. He leaves things open for (audiences) to bring their own ending to it.”
Ultimately, audiences will come away from “Yellow Face” understanding that the issues Asian-Americans confront aren’t that different from issues people of other races contend with, Scott said.
“Theater can connect people from very different communities and show how we are linked together, how we as human beings deal with the same issues and problems in different ways,” he said.
That’s when theater gets it right.