Produced by: TheatreWorks
When: August 26 through September 20, 2009
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Tickets: $24-$62; visit theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960
the American dream
David Henry Hwang's 'Yellow Face' in Mountain View
"Yellow Face" absolutely reverberates with irony - and more than a few laughs and tears - as it explores connections between the American dream and racism.
Written by David Henry Hwang, who wrote "M Butterfly" (for which he won a Tony) "Yellow Face" gives its audience plenty to chew on. It doesn't give simple answers, but digs around the edges with humor and pathos, presenting more than one way to look at an idea.
"Yellow Face" begins with the real-life fuss over the casting of Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce as a Eurasian in the New York production of "Miss Saigon" in 1990. Pryce had originated and played the role for 10 years in West End, London, wearing bronze makeup - yellow face - and facial prosthetics.
This is as big a deal to Asian-American actors as black face was to black Americans. Black face has pretty much disappeared from the entertainment scene, but Asian-American actors are still losing jobs to white actors. An article in the "Yellow Face" program points out that the movie "21" was based on a group of Asian students at MIT, but most of the film roles went to Caucasians. "The Last Airbender" movie, due out in 2010, has Causcasian actors in roles that had been Asian in the TV series.
Hwang and actor B.D. Wong were among the most prominent of people who protested the casting of a white actor in an Asian role, and the Actors Equity Association at first agreed, refusing to allow the production to be staged with Pryce. A number of other people, including British Equity, protested on grounds that the AEA was infringing on artistic freedom. Others accused AEA of discriminating against Pryce because he was Caucasian. Mackintosh threatened to close the show - which would have meant a loss of millions of dollars - and the public outcry eventually led to AEA allowing the show to go on.
The show opened in 1991, ran for 10 years and 4,092 performances, the 10th-longest-running musical in Broadway history. In "Yellow Face" - which is receiving its regional premiere at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, produced by TheatreWorks - Hwang explores his own ambivalence about the conflict between racism and artistic freedom, in a rambling, semi-autobiographical play in which he himself is the lead character.
His avatar in the play, DHH, played wonderfully by Pun Bandhu, eventually begins to waffle about Pryce, and says, when asked to appear at an anti-Pryce rally, "But the artistic freedom thing - between you and me, I think this is starting to make us look bad."
DHH digs himself deeper into trouble - and irony - when he accidentally casts a white man, Marcus (played with considerable wit by Thomas Azar), in an Asian role in one of his own plays. That play closes in previews, but the pseudo-Asian DHH himself helped create goes on to star in "The King and I" and become a huge star and a spokesman for Asian-American causes.
Which irritates the hell out of DHH.
"I was an Asian role model when you were still a Caucasian!" DHH screeches.
DHH is on hand when his father decides to start an organization called Chinese Republican Bankers for Clinton. An astounded DHH assumes his father will be the only member.
That leads to his father being investigated by a bunch of Republican senators.
Francis Jue is wonderful as the father, HYH, and in several other roles. He tells about how as a boy, in an oppressed and poverty stricken part of China, he knew his real life wasn't in China, but in the America he'd seen in the movies.
In the play, after being harassed by a Senate investigation that questioned his patriotism, HYH comes to feel that his "real life" in America was at an end. It is a very touching scene.
Hwang also throws in the story of Wen Ho Lee, the Los Alamos scientist who was also harassed and even imprisoned by the feds. Jue is mesmerizing in a scene that uses dialogue lifted from Lee's actual interrogation.
Hwang won't say how much of the play is really what happened and what is fiction. He gives himself a rough time in the play - DHH drinks too much and calls people late at night, he rents porn videos, he digs himself into a pit of dishonesty over the white actor who has become a spokesman for Asian-American - and constantly has his own words thrown back in his face: That "It doesn't matter what somebody looks like."
Hwang has specified that the actors in "Yellow Face" must cross ethnic and gender lines, which is a toast to multiculturalism.
Tina Chilip is almost unintelligible when she essays a New York theater professional with a heavy Yiddish accent, but completely brilliant when she appears briefly as Sen. Fred Thompson. She gets that basset-hound face, that ponderous former actor's self-important voice.
Robert Ernst is creepy as (Name Withheld On Advice of Counsel), which is what they call the reporter investigating HYH. Amy Resnick and Howard Swain also appear in several roles each.
Bandhu has tremendous stage charisma. The audience wants to watch him, wants to see what he will do next. Jue is excellent in all his several roles in "Yellow Face," which he also played Off-Broadway. He transits from comedy to pathos with sure-footed skill.
The set, by J.B. Wilson, is very spare. Almost all the imagery, all the scene-setting, takes place in dialogue and in fine acting, directed by the highly skilled Robert Kelley. In this production he again shows he knows how to get the actors to carry the tale.