Jennifer Chung Klam’ Review of Yellow Face

October 16, 2010

YELLOW FACE, by Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company

Coloring the American Dream
By Jennifer Chung Klam
Posted on Sat, Oct 16th, 2010
Last updated Sat, Oct 16th, 2010

“Yellow face” refers to the practice of casting white actors in the role of Asian characters – often using makeup to appear more stereotypically Asian.

Playwright David Henry Hwang returns to themes he previously explored in works like “F.O.B.” and the Tony Award-winning “M. Butterfly,” examining race, culture, identity and authenticity in his 2007 comedy “Yellow Face.” Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company tackles the semi-autobiographical satire with equal parts hilarity and heart, featuring an outstanding cast and Seema Sueko’s firm directorial hand to pull the frenetic fragments together.

The play mixes actual events from the 1990s with incidents loosely based on truth and outright fiction. It starts off with a recap of the 1990 “Miss Saigon” casting flap, in which Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce was cast in the leading role of a Vietnamese engineer in the Broadway debut. DHH – Hwang wrote himself into the play – leads the ultimately unsuccessful bid to replace Pryce with an Asian actor.

In response to the casting controversy, DHH penned the disastrous “Face Value,” which closed before its Broadway opening. This is where things take a turn for the fictional. In a series of misunderstandings, DHH approves the casting of a white actor, Marcus G. Dahlman in the lead Asian role.

To save face, DHH then tries to pass the actor off as Marcus Gee, Siberian Jew. It works all too well, and Marcus ends up the star of a touring production of “The King and I” as the King of Siam. He also becomes the poster boy for Asian-American activism, attending community events and rallying for Asian-American rights – and lobbing a few accusations of cultural apathy at DHH.

Incensed, and calling Marcus an “ethnic tourist,” DHH attempts to force the actor to reveal the truth of his non-Asian ethnicity.


Greg Watanabe, with Michelle Wong in thebackground, in David Henry Hwang’s “Yellow Face.”

Photo: Nick Abadilla

 At the same time, in a clever reversal, DHH’s father puts on a kind of “white face.” He loves American culture, believes firmly in capitalism, finds the story of “Miss Saigon” beautiful and imagines his “real self” to be an American icon like Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart.

The humorous and breezy, if scattered, first act deals largely with Marcus’ masquerade as Eurasian. But speeding through the history of the “Miss Saigon” casting fuss and the “Face Value” debacle – with the extensive announcements of dates, headlines and names and titles of various real-life figures – tends to get tedious. And a few too many phone and email conversations spoken to the audience, rather than as a dialogue, give the first act a disjointed, contrived feel.

Greg Watanabe’s high-strung DHH is a hilarious ball of contradictions, bristling at any perceived offense to Asians yet mocking whites for putting butter on their rice. Watanabe has great comic timing, and his excessive bafflement and offense at injustice provides much humor, though it especially underscores his calm sincerity in the play’s final moments as his character finds the play’s message.

Hwang’s play isn’t all self-deprecation, though. He also gleefully takes aim at the theater industry, journalists and theater critics.

Brian Bielawski gives Marcus a likeable, dopey sincerity and innocence. When DHH tells him it doesn’t matter what you look like on the outside, Marcus takes it literally.

Jacob Bruce, Maggie Carney, Albert Park and Michelle Wong do a fine job rotating between dozens of characters. Park gives DHH’s father a cuddly immigrant charm that turns to tragedy in the second act. Bruce is smarmy as the ostensibly objective <i>New York Times</i> journalist with an agenda. Carney brings much humor to her various roles including actress Jane Krakowski, and Wong is fiery as Marcus’ girlfriend and others.

Perhaps to drive the play’s point about identity home, the multicultural cast members portray people of various ethnicities and dialects. Women even at times give voice to male characters.

Projections across one large screen in the background and two smaller ones on either side of the stage help sort out the parade of news headlines and figures, and David F. Weiner’s simple and versatile multilevel set allows for a number of different settings. Lighting by Jason Bieber aptly moves the focus with the action.

In the second half, Hwang works in more polarizing news events of the era, including the 1996 U.S. government investigation into claims that China tried to influence American elections, and the 1999 imprisonment of Wen Ho Lee, who was accused of being a spy for China – and ultimately set free for lack of evidence. Henry Yuan Hwang, a prominent banker and the playwright’s own father, was also investigated for possible ties to illegal Chinese campaign contributions and espionage funding.

The charges all come together to paint a broader picture of the racism toward Asian Americans in the United States. And let’s face it – though less common, yellow face hasn’t gone away.

The second act fares much better than the first, with the main characters coming closer to finding their true faces, and the story lines deepening into questions of identity, legitimacy and racism. Is what we show to the public our true selves? Is how we self-identify more important than the identity we’re born into? Is race meaningless? Should it be? Or is culture more important?

These are the questions that will linger long after the final curtain, and stir the kind of discussions that are surely what Hwang intended.

About the author: Jennifer Chung Klam is an editor at The Daily Transcript and a freelance arts and culture writer.


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