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Yellowface

David Henry Hwang
Public Theater, New York
(2007)

Production photo

David Henry Hwang won a Tony for his script of M Butterfly and became a spokesman for his community, the Asian Americans. As a consequence, they looked to him when a crisis of identity arose.

In the London production of Miss Saigon, Jonathan Pryce had played a part that could logically have gone to an Asian actor. When the American transfer was cast, rather than choosing an ethnic replacement, the producers, led by an unrepentant Cameron Mackintosh, brought Pryce with it.

To his credit, Hwang, played by a suitably straight-faced Hoon Lee, stepped up to the plate. In no time he was encouraging Actors Equity to boycott the show. He was also making front page headlines with his stance.

However, soon enough Hwang got cold feet and Pryce was allowed into the country. This started a saga of soul-searching for Hwang that eventually became the source of Yellowface.

Some time afterwards, the playwright wrote a new piece called Face Value and needed an Asian actor for the lead. This proved easier said than done. Nobody that was auditioned worked out until they found Noah Bean's Marcus Dolman.

To those who cannot recognise an Emperor's New Clothes, he might look awfully white. However, Hwang and his associates knew better, with Marcus' Siberian blood being the missing link.

Eventually, the actor won over his detractors and became yellower-faced than those more obviously from the East. He joined Asian associations and he made a long-term trip to his spiritual home in China.

As this story is related by an increasingly angry and jealous Hwang, another runs in parallel. This is far closer to home and involves Henry Hwang, David's father, like several other characters played with delicious wit and aplomb by Francis Jue.

Old man Hwang is a distinguished banker who acts as a go-between for interests in China and the United States. He is very successful but still harbours ambitions to become an archetypal American of James Stewart vintage.

He riles his son constantly but becomes implicated in a scandal dreamed up by the FBI in what appears to have been a deliberate racist vendetta to discredit the Chinese-American community.

At this point the play becomes really sinister as the FBI becomes a bullying Big Brother and Anthony Torn, playing a journalist who cannot be named in the play, follows suit with even less justification. Eventually, such was the pressure that the authorities drove Hwang senior to an early grave.

His son is also harassed but has other problems, both with his ex, who falls for that new breed of nearly Chinaman, Marcus, but also with that honorary representative of a community which is only his by adoption.

Much of Yellowface is both informative and amusing, aided by good acting throughout the cast. The Brechtian style of presentation, on an empty square sprung floor works well, with actors changing roles and demonstrating great versatility.

Where Leigh Silverman's slick 2½ hour production overstays its welcome is in the long, repetitive story of Marcus that seems less "real" than the other tales, which have the authentic feel of autobiography. This strand eventually makes some impressive points about racial stereotyping and honesty regarding difficult issues but it takes an interminable time to get there.

When Yellowface concentrates on Miss Saigon and Hwang Senior's highs and lows, it is a delight but also an object lesson to us all. The message would just have been a great deal stronger with a little judicious cutting.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher