UT Preview Article on YELLOW FACE

October 15, 2010


In “Yellow Face,” a playwright finds himself

// By James Hebert //

Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 1:39 p.m.

Greg Watanabe (left) and cast in Mo`olelo's "Yellow Face."

Photo by Nick Abadilla: Greg Watanabe (left) and cast in Mo`olelo’s “Yellow Face.”

The lead character of “Yellow Face” is an Asian-American playwright who goes by the initials DHH, gets involved in a casting controversy over the Broadway musical “Miss Saigon” and ultimately writes a theater piece about that experience called “Face Value.” (It flops).

“Yellow Face,” which has its San Diego premiere at Mo`olelo Performing Arts Co. this week, happens to be written by David Henry Hwang, the Tony-winner (for 1988’s “M. Butterfly”) who fits the rest of that description pretty snugly as well.

So, it must be asked: Is the DHH of “Yellow Face” the same guy as David Henry Hwang, resident of real life?

“I think audiences should draw whatever conclusions they like about that,” Hwang demurs.

Ask Mo`olelo co-founder and artistic director Seema Sueko (who is directing the production) what she thinks, and her conclusions are a little less coy.

“I think it’s a fictionalized, fantastical version of David Henry Hwang,” Sueko says. “I think he’s done a very generous thing. He has written himself as the most foolish character onstage, who makes blunders and mistakes and tries to cover things up.

“When someone raises his hand and says, ‘I’ve messed up,’ you can say: ‘Yeah, I’ve done that, too.’ ”

Hwang acknowledges that “Yellow Face” represents a working-out of his own often conflicting feelings about race and cultural heritage over the course of his career (which began auspiciously in 1980 with the off-Broadway play “FOB”).

DHH’s confusion “reflects my own awareness that multiculturalism, like any other ‘ism,’ contains its share of contradictory and absurd elements,” Hwang says. “I wanted to write a play that pokes fun at some of the excesses of multiculturalism, while also appreciating its value.”

The back story: Fresh off the huge success of “M. Butterfly,” Hwang helped lead protests (ultimately unsuccessful) over the casting of the white actor Jonathan Pryce as a key Asian character in the 1990 Broadway staging of “Miss Saigon.”

“Yellow Face” chronicles this history and more, but also weaves in a fictional plotline that has DHH accidentally casting a white actor as an Asian in “Face Value.”

“Yellow Face” premiered in L.A. in 2007 and went on to be named a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

Sueko says Hwang (who comes to San Diego for post-show talk-backs Oct. 22 and 24) has been generous in assisting Mo`olelo’s production of “Yellow Face,” which is supported by a $15,000 NEA grant.

“He’s already had his New York and L.A. productions of this show, yet he’s given us a lot of his time,” says Sueko. “It’s inspirational, actually.”


“Yellow Face”

Mo`olelo Performing Arts Co.

When: Thursdays-Saturdays,

7:30 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m., through Oct. 31

Where: Tenth Avenue Theatre,

930 10th Ave., downtown

Tickets: $15-$27

Phone: (619) 342-7395

Online: moolelo.net


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