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A CurtainUp Review
By David Avery
Yellow Face is the latest work from David Henry Hwang, the Asian-American playwright whose most famous play is probably M. Butterfly. The only reason I make the distinction about his ethnicity is that the play itself is about "Asian-American Playwright David Henry Hwang" (DHH for short), tracing his life from the success of M. Butterfly to the near present, and his attempts to come to grips with his role as "Asian Spokesman for the Dramatic Arts"
The play details the fallout from DHH (Hoon Lee) hiring non-Asian actor Marcus (Peter Scanavino) to star in Face Value, about Asian actors infiltrating a production company in "white face." This unfortunately occurs on the heels of DHH's public protests against Caucasian star Jonathan Pryce acting in a Eurasian role in Miss Saigon's Broadway debut. When DHH learns of his mistake he does his best to cover it up, and eventually replaces Marcus with "go-to" Asian B. D. Wong. However, the white actor who previously played Marcus, disillusioned by his experience, decides to travel to China to experience Asian culture and, after assimilating an Asian psyche returns the United States as a premiere "Asian" actor and spokesman for Asian rights. This causes DHH no end of annoyance and more than a little trepidation.
That is the first act, and as a farce of mistaken identity, it is very funny. There is a sense of self-deprecation in the words that shines through. Lee plays DHH with an earnest sincerity that compliments the action. Indignities upon indignities mount as the fallout from his disastrous play hit home. We identify immediately with DHH's predicament.
Without giving away too much, the subject and tone of the second act are a complete surprise, and take the play in a direction that is wholly unanticipated. Rather than being jarring, the change turns the play into much more than a simple comedy but reveals Hwang's deeper intentions. He is addressing issues of race and comes to the conclusion that perhaps being identified by one's race, even positively, may be more of a curse than a blessing. This is a playwright that has been in the spotlight long enough to be comfortable under a microscope and his honesty truly shines through. Yes, it is fact mixed with fiction, but it is still an unflattering portrait of the artist.
Yellow Face is staged on a plain stage with only a reflective backdrop as set decoration, perhaps to emphasis the contemplative nature of the material. It's really a one-man show that happens to have other actors assisting the lead. The supporting players are hardly non-essential, however. They provide Lee with a sounding board, and play a variety of rapid-fire roles that would challenge the most accomplished actor.
In the end, this play is less about racial politics and identity than about compromising one's artistic vision -- giving in to pressures to be what one is not just to satisfy the crowd (or to be accepted by them). It asks if how one identifies oneself is any less important or real than what one has inherited. While it touches on some of the problems our society has in dealing with race, it does so in a way that places the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the individual. It also does it in a way that is both humorous and touching.