Jean Lowerison’s review of Yellow Face!

October 21, 2010

THEATER REVIEW: “Yellow Face” is engaging Jean Lowerison – SDGLN Theater Critic
October 20th, 2010


Truth is often stranger than, and sometimes the same as fiction in playwright David Henry Hwang’s world.

Best known for his Broadway smash “M. Butterfly” (about a French diplomat who falls in love with a Chinese opera diva who turns out to be both male and a spy), Hwang likes to explore concepts like race, cultural identity and what it means to be an immigrant (or, as he puts it, a perpetual foreigner).

These issues appear in his 2007 play “Yellow Face,” along with considerations of press bias, political persecution and the nature of truth. It’s a messy but captivating mélange, served up in short scenes that flow into each other, and Hwang uses another mixture – of stand-up, satire, social commentary and family drama – to make his points.

Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company presents “Yellow Face” through Oct. 31 at the Tenth Avenue Theatre. Seema Sueko directs.

The springboard for the dramatic action is the 1991 flap over the importation of the British hit “Miss Saigon” to Broadway. A retelling of the “Madame Butterfly” story set in late ’60s Vietnam, the cast included paleface Jonathan Pryce as the Eurasian pimp.

In “Yellow Face,” Hwang’s alter ego DHH (Greg Watanabe), incensed by the cultural insensitivity of this move (“If Asians don’t get to play Asians, who do they get to play?”), writes a letter to Actors’ Equity asking them to boycott the show unless Pryce is replaced with an Asian actor.

Producer Cameron Mackintosh, calling it a “tempest in an oriental teapot,” threatens to cancel the show; Actors’ Equity backs down and the show goes on.

Later, casting for his new play “Face Value” (a comedy about the “Miss Saigon” dustup), DHH casts Marcus (Brian Bielawski), an obvious Caucasian, in an Asian role, despite his producer’s simple question: “Does he look Asian to you? If when he takes off his makeup, he’s still white … doesn’t that bother you?”

It doesn’t – until Marcus jumps full-bore into his new-found identity and gathers a following to whom he spouts platitudes like “Never let anyone tell you that what you look like is who you are.” (DHH is responsible for this, having fielded a journalist’s question about Marcus’ ethnicity with the dubious claim that Marcus’ Siberian Jewish father somehow qualifies the son as Asian).

Meanwhile (in another plot thread?), DHH’s immigrant father HYH (Albert Park), proud to call himself American, charms the audience but frustrates his son with his sunny assessment of this “land of opportunity” – until HYH has a run-in with the U.S. government over questionable bank actions.

Hwang even throws in the embarrassing Wen Ho Lee affair (the nuclear scientist accused of downloading nuclear secrets in the late ’90s) as evidence of the “perpetual foreigner” status of immigrants.

The press (especially The New York Times) takes a beating as well, for its own insensitivity.

“Yellow Face” boasts a fine cast anchored by Watanabe’s excellently conflicted DHH and Bielawski’s open-faced Marcus, riding the wave of an identity he didn’t invent.

Albert Park, Jacob Bruce, Maggie Carney and Michelle Wong are fine as well, moving with seeming ease from one character to another (together they play more than 70).

It’s a tribute to Hwang’s writing, the fine cast and Sueko’s snappy direction that “Yellow Face,” with its oddball structure and multiple plot strands, is consistently engaging.

The details

Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company’s production of “Yellow Face” plays through Oct. 31 at The 10th Avenue Theatre, 930 Tenth Ave.

Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m.

For tickets, call (619) 342-7395 or visit


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