a rave from the UT for Yellow Face

October 18, 2010

Check out the review of YELLOW FACE by James Hebert of The San Diego Union Tribune:


Play review: Witty, wise “Yellow Face” is subversive fun

// By James Hebert //

Sunday, October 17, 2010 at 2:44 p.m.

The black community had Martin Luther King Jr. Chicanos had César Chávez. But who will have the guts (or at least the gall) to stand up for fake Asian-Americans?

Here’s who: David Henry Hwang – Tony Award-winning playwright, minority-rights warrior and utter and complete weasel.

This might be a good time to clarify that the Hwang described here is not technically the playwright himself but a character by that name in “Yellow Face,” the comical yet slyly wise play now getting an ace production at Mo`olelo Performing Arts Co.

The real-life Hwang clearly is serious about the complex racial issues raised in his play, if totally unserious about his own image. As portrayed in marvelously smarmy style by the superb Greg Watanabe, the “DHH” in “Yellow Face” is a petty, opportunistic egotist with principles of iron but a spine made of Play-Doh.

The memoir-meets-fable quality of “Yellow Face” requires explaining. In 1990, fresh off his Tony triumph for “M. Butterfly,” Hwang led protests against the casting of the white actor Jonathan Pryce as an Asian lead in Broadway’s “Miss Saigon.”

That effort failed. Then Hwang wrote a Broadway play based on the controversy called “Face Value,” which also failed. “Yellow Face” takes in all that history, plus (verging on too ambitiously) the trumped-up case against the supposed Chinese-American spy Wen Ho Lee, the “Chinagate” campaign-finance probes of the 1990s and the latter’s link to Hwang’s own father, a prominent banker.

But Hwang adds a fanciful twist: In “Yellow Face” (which in 2007 became his second play named a Pulitzer finalist, after “M. Butterfly”), the playwright mistakenly casts a white guy named Marcus (wonderfully guileless Brian Bielawski) as the lead in “Face Value.”

When it becomes clear Marcus is about as Asian as Chinese checkers, DHH tries to cover up by inventing an identity for the actor as a “Siberian Jew,” and cynically pumping up Marcus’ ethnic pride.

It works too well: Marcus turns into a tireless fighter against prejudice, becoming in a strange way more “Asian” than DHH himself.

The play’s conflation of fact and fiction is perfectly in tune with Hwang’s ideas about the storytelling that goes into our social identities – the way, in T.S. Eliot’s words, we “prepare a face” to show the outside world.

And as smarlty realized by artistic chief Seema Sueko (showing a deft touch for comedy) and her multi-ethnic Mo`olelo cast (includng Jacob Bruce, Maggie Carney, Albert Park and Michelle Wong), the show proves as subversive as it is touching and funny.


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