June 21, 2011
By Catey Sullivan
As someone who adored Jonathan Pryce in his Tony-winning turn as the Vietnamese pimp in Miss Saigon, we’re chagrined to admit that the racist implications of having a white actor play an Asian never occurred to us. David Henry Hwang puts the question this way: If it’s not OK to put a white actor in blackface to play Boy Willie in August Wilson’s The Piano, how can it possibly be OK to put a white man in what amounts to yellow face to portray an Asian?
Issues of race, theater and the world beyond theater are front and center in Hwang’s provocative, funny, self-deprecating and razor-sharp Yellow Face. The piece begins as a fairly straightforward telling of Hwang’s protests of Pryce’s casting in Miss Saigon. The Tony-winning author of M. Butterfly generated a flashpoint of media coverage and briefly caused producer Cameron Macintosh to cancel the Miss Saigon’s New York run. But Yellow Face – which centers on the travails of a playwright named DHH – is just getting started with the Miss Saigon blow-up (or “tempest in an Oriental teapot,” as Macintosh describes it). After laying a foundation that delves the difficult gray areas between color blind casting and racist casting, Yellow Face spins from the trouble with Miss Saigon into an almost Kafka-esque narrative of race and racism in and outside of the insular world of theater. From the casting of Miss Saigon, Hwang moves to U.S. legislature and its role in the fear mongering racist witch hunts that put an innocent Wen Ho Lee in solitary confinement for nine months.
On the surface, Yellow Face sounds like an exercise in politically correct navel gazing. How could it be anything else, given that the playwright has made himself the main character? Yet Yellow Face never once descends into the valley of self-indulgence. Hwang’s dialogue shows perspective that’s global rather than solipsistic. And while it’s a mighty technical feat that Hwang pulls off by shaping something comparatively narrow (a chapter in his own life) into something of global import, Yellow Face isn’t just a technically well-made play; it’s also wholly entertaining. Working with a marvelous ensemble cast, director Steve Scott has shaped a production that is as droll and compelling as it is illuminating.
In the crucial role of DHH, David Rhee is the lynchpin that holds this marvelous piece of theater together. His expressions as DHH discusses Miss Saigon with his father HYH (Josephy Anthony Foronda) are an early hallmark of a strong performance . DHH is at once exasperated and enraged at the prospect of a blockbuster musical about an Asian girl who kills herself after having an affair with an American G.I. DHH doesn’t actually say so in so many words, but his just-ate-lemon demeanor makes words almost unnecessary: Miss Saigon is almost as bad as that imperialistic classic The King and I.
But Saigon is only the beginning of DHH’s troubles. Having become the poster child for racially correct casting, DHH mistakenly hires white actor Marcus G. Dahlman (Clayton Stamper) to play the Chinese lead in his new play, “Face Value.” By the time DHH realizes his mistake, well, he’s in far too deep to extricate himself without a whole lotta embarrassment. And even if he were willing to lose face, it’s not that simple. As his lawyers tell him, while you can hire someone because they’re Asian, you can’t fire them because they’re white. DHH’s attempts to unravel the conundrum of race and theater becomes about as tricky and futile as detangling the strands in a bowl of angel hair pasta soaked on olive oil. There’s simply no way to do it without getting one’s hands terribly slimy and, in the end, looking terribly foolish.
Lily-white Marcus, meanwhile, adopts the name Marcus Ghee, talks up his heritage as a “Eurasion Siberian Jew,” becomes an outspoken advocate for the “Asian community” and – after “Face Value” – goes on tour to great acclaim as the lead in a production of The King and I.
The whole thing would be a daffy exercise in mistaken identities were the stakes not so perilously high. It’s in DHH’s father HYH that those stakes become painfully clear, as the powerful U.S. senate banking committee begins unilaterally investigating U.S. citizens with “Asian” surnames in an attempt to ferret out those who would covertly assist China in becoming a superpower more super than the U.S. of A. What the brutal rigors of communist China could not do to HYH, the U.S. senate succeeds in. He becomes ruined, both physically and mentally.
Forunda (who, incidentally, spent over a year playing the pimp in a national tour of Miss Saigon) is up to his usual superlative standards. In HYH, we get a portrait of the sort of exasperating parent surely all children encounter at some point. His view of the world doesn’t always jive with that of his son or, for that matter, always with reality. Forunda depicts a self-made man of tremendous resilience and resourcefulness – HYH is an immigrant who started with nothing and because the owner of the first U.S. bank to do personal slowly begin to shred him beyond repair. In as performance as memorable as it is empathetic, Forunda captures the sad progression as HYH’s confidence begins to crumble as he discovers that his country, United States, is not the benevolent, fair place he believed.
The rest of the ensemble, many of them playing two and three roles, is equally good. As DHH’s ex-girlfriend, Tanya McBrideis just the right amount of wary and sympathetic. Christopher Meister makes an unctuous Macintosh, among other roles, and Lydia Berger is hilariously crafty as a casting director trying to ferret out racial info at auditions where she’s prohibited from asking about ethnic backgrounds. And as a New York Times reporter with all the ethics of a viper, Christopher Popiois effectively villainous.
Yellow Face just may be one of the smartest plays about race currently running in our allegedly post-racial world. But that’s not the main reason it’s worth seeing. No, the reason to see Yellow Face is that Scott has created a show that’s wholly absorbing. It will make you think about tricky matters of ethnicity, skin color and stereotyping, but it will also keep you engaged from start to finish. As individual performers and as an ensemble, this cast is fantastic. Silk Road has set the standard for this summer’s informal David Henry Hwang Fest (Chinglish at the Goodman, Family Devotions at Halcyon). If the other productions are this good, it will be a festival to celebrate whether you’re Asian, Caucasian or, Eurasian Siberian Jew.
Rating: 4 STARS