In David Henry Hwang’s “Yellow Face” the famous Asian-American playwright, best known for his Tony award-winning musical “M Butterfly” is also the central character, the narrator and guide to a journalistic investigation of racial type-casting and the ongoing struggles between individual and cultural identity. It is an intriguing work not only because it is so personal, but also because Hwang allows his creative invention, his facility for making theatrical fiction, to explore the reality of his own self-image, his persona as a famous person somewhat unwillingly representing an entire cultural heritage.
The style of the production allows the ensemble to play a multitude of characters in brief snippets that feel almost like news clips, often introduced by headlines. Beneath that public life, the individual who is Hwang must constantly define what his personal integrity involves, how professional compromises re-define him, and at what cost he will invest in what values. Moses Yim does a solid job of creating Hwang and making us believe that this public figure has very great conflicts in his personal life, and that he is too much interested in his own authenticity to accept the easy or most profitable definitions of who he is.
The conflict begins with Hwang’s protests against the casting of Jonathan Pryce, a Brit, to play a Eurasian in the 1990’s New York production of “Miss Saigon”. That considerable flap put Hwang, who led the protest against Actors Equity for allowing the casting, at the center of a theatrical tempest over the use of Caucasian actors in Asian or other clearly ethnic roles. That also initiates the play’s conflict between the integrity of commercial theater and the integrity of the commercial press, both important questions throughout.
The core of this story, however, has to do not with the casting of Pryce, but with the casting by Hwang of a white man to play an Asian in a later Hwang play, called “Face Value”. The casting of an actor who later brands himself as Marcus Gee, is a mistake, the result of believing the actor to be of mixed race, but it is made much worse by Hwang’s attempt to cover that mistake, to reinvent the actor, in order to preserve his own reputation. All the more bitter when the play fails but the actor goes on to be a great success as a representative of Asian culture.
Lee Osorio plays that character as a typically white bread young actor eager to do whatever he needs to in order to get the job, to get the part. Re-defining himself as a person is not so different than re-creating himself in a character. Is that not equally true for David Henry Hwang? That relationship between the extent to which Hwang creates this actor and the extent to which he fictionalizes himself is a central conceit of the drama, and quite effective in asking the play’s interesting questions of identity and authenticity.
The other five members of the ensemble do a quite credible job of inventing all the characters in Hwang and Gee’s lives, with one exception. Using a young man to play Hwang’s father, a character who becomes quite important both to the playwright’s public sense of honor and in keeping the playwright genuine to his real roots, was simply miscast. I know, that’s an ironic criticism for this play, especially, but it was impossible to watch an actor playing someone fifty years older than himself and not just see a lot of fake, well-intentioned performance. It was the most serious misstep in the production.
Director David Hsieh has a good grip on this material, obviously cares about it in a very personal way, and moves the action along swiftly and clearly, keeping our attention properly on the internal struggle within the playwright. “Yellow Face” is a well-written, provocative piece of autobiographical journalism and dramatic invention, and here it is given a respectable and admirable production.
PICTURED ABOVE: Lee Osorio as Marcus, Stephanie Kim as Leah and Moses Yim as DHH
PHOTO BY: David Hsieh.