Stepping in and out of the role of race / by R. Sheth

June 21, 2011
By Chris Jones

In the 1990s, the prominent Asian-American playwright David Henry Hwang joined the Asian-American actor B.D. Wong in protesting the decision of the Scottish producer Cameron Mackintosh to cast the Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce in the role of the Asian pimp in the Broadway production of “Miss Saigon.”

Got all those racial markers and modifiers?

Actually, “racial” may not be precisely the right term, since there also are ambiguous matters here of national origin, citizenship, physical appearance and the relationships thereof. And there is the question of whether it's really accurate to call The Engineer an Asian pimp in the first place, given that he is a self-serving fictional creation sprung from the creative imaginations of two Frenchmen and an Englishman.

As the “Miss Saigon” affair gathered steam — the protesters arguing with some justification that putting a white actor in an Asian role is no different from Caucasians appearing in blackface — Hwang found himself in the increasingly uncomfortable position of being one theater artist telling a group of fellow theater artists that they did not have the creative freedom to cast as they please. Tricky.

So Hwang did the smart thing and wrote a play about his discomfort, borrowing for the title the term that some protestors flung at Pryce in his Asian makeup: “Yellow Face.”

Performed in 2007 at the Public Theater in New York, “Yellow Face” is just now getting its first Chicago production by the Silk Road Theatre Company (in association with the Goodman Theatre). Interestingly enough, last weekend's opening came just before the Goodman premieres Hwang's “Chinglish,” this writer's newest work. Especially if you're planning on seeing that play, which opens Monday, “Yellow Face” offers a fascinating window into the self-reflective Hwang's state of mind, circa 2006.

It also offers one of the very few frank and humorous explorations of a topic that tends to be taboo in artistic circles, and a dangerously mined sea in which smarter people know not to wade. As such, it is positively cathartic.

In this fact-and-fiction play, which names names and, to prove that no one is being let off the hook, features the playwright himself as a very flawed central character, Hwang conjures a hungry actor named Marcus (played with delicious vapidity by Clayton Stamper) who has nary a drop of Asian blood, but somehow winds up being widely perceived as Asian. He even gets himself cast in “The King and I,” in a noble-savage role many Asians find stereotypical, mostly because he just kind of wills himself to become Asian. It's a clever encapsulation of how absurd some of these things can get.

I wouldn't claim “Yellow Face” is a perfectly unified play.

It feels a bit like Hwang spilled his various notions and neuroses on matters far and wide onto the page, and the piece probably tries to cover too much ground at once — although that's also part of its charm. Later on, the piece probes the life and works of Hwang's late father, Henry Y. Hwang, who founded the first Asian-American bank. And although much of this material is provocative and moving, and although Hwang wants to make the point that his immigrant father wanted nothing so much as to be an all-American, the link to the world of Asian pimps in musicals is a bit of a stretch. That said, the role is richly played in Steve Scott's production by Joseph Anthony Foronda, who made his career playing, yes, The Engineer in “Miss Saigon.” I remember his performance well. So that rather undermines my point.

Scott's production is a tad underpaced in spots. Its star, David Rhee, tends to get stuck in individual moments that, rich as they are, need to be pushed along. Nonetheless, Rhee certainly captures those instants of sheer panic when his playwright character comes to see that every road in this debate leads to compromise, discomfort or both. And there is a very lively supporting ensemble cast, including Tanya McBride, Lydia Berger, Christopher Popio (playing a corrupt reporter from the New York Times) and, especially, Christopher Meister, whose bevy of distinct characters includes the kind of Broadway producer who keeps Zantac on hand at all times.

More importantly, “Yellow Face” wades into this malaise not only with guts but with a sense of humor. You get the sense that the very-much-at-home director, who works at the Goodman, has sat in on a few of these fights and used it all as ammo. And if you've ever been around debates about racial politics, and, no doubt secretly, found yourself engaging in some kind of Orwellian double-think, then this is your show, whatever the color of your visage.