June 18, 2011
By Tom Williams
The Chinese concept of Face: “Basically, it says that the face we choose to show the world – reveals who we really are.”
Playwright David Henry Hwang makes himself a character in his own play which he does both with self-deprecation and self-righteous rage. With a confusing mixture of fact and fiction, Hwang tries to give all sides of the issue of non-traditional casting or race-switching casting. Hwang begins with his vocal protests of having a white guy play an Eurasian Vietnamese pimp in Miss Saigon. He got Actor’s Equity to ban Jonathan Pryce from playing the role causing a controversy that only garnered so much publicity that Miss Saigon got a tremendous advance ticket sales. Eventually, artistic license caused both Equity and Hwang to back off thus allowing Pryce to win another Tony Award.
The protest did make Hwang a sort of spokesperson for Asian causes in the performing arts. After TV and film insulted Asians by casting Warner Oland’s Charlie Chan and Mickey Rooney’s caricature in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and replacing Bruce Lee because he was “too Asian” with David Carradine – Hwang had had enough demanding that Asians play Asians in the performing arts.
However, sometimes tight racial casting goes wrong as it did when Hwang cast B.D. Wong – who was wonderful in M. Butterfly – in his next play Face Value. Hwang states that he was equally unfair with that casting so he naively (utter self-delusional) cast a very white guy in an Asian role. Everyone around him thought Marcus Ghee (the terrific Clayton Stamper) was not Asian and he professed to be Jewish-American. Hwang’s spin-control allowed him to ask what is “Asian” really? He went on to state that Marcus was Siberian Jewish and that since Siberia is in Asia, hence Marcus is a true “Asian.” Really?
The satire gets quite thick as Marcus takes on the persona of an Asian cultural believer who becomes more ‘Asian’ that Hwang. This is were the plot gets too self-serving as it wonders into the story of Hwang’s banker father (played with gusto by Joesph Anthony Foronda). David Rhee is fine as Hwang as he traverses through Hwang’s ups and downs as he struggles to make the concept of Yellow Face relevant.
Director Steve Scott’s fast-paced and documentary style staging makes for a blend of richly funny satire and biting irony that gives the many levels of ‘face’ a unique theatricality. The failure to distinguish facts from fiction only confuses the audiences as it diminishes the impact of political correctness for Asians. I also never bought Marcus Ghee as Asian for even a moment and I doubt the audience did either. This very thin premise and the marred line between fact and fiction hurt Yellow Face. I believe that Hwang tried to cover too much here as he got sidetracked with the details. A tighter focus would aid the work. It does produce laughs as it stirs up a conversation about race-based casting. The performances are strong and the work is engaging.