BWW Reviews: Theater J's YELLOW FACE is Entertaining and Thought-Provoking
Color-blind casting. To some, the term conjures up new opportunities for minority actors -- a black actor finally getting the opportunity to play his dream role: Tevye. To others, it conjures up confusion and silliness: Henry Higgins telling Eliza Doolittle, played by a black soprano, that it is only her speech that keeps her from getting ahead in Edwardian-era Britain. Is a black Phantom of the Opera mistreated by French society only because of his skin lesions, or does racial prejudice have anything to do with it? How do a director and obviously non-white actor playing Tevye, Queen Elizabeth, or Thomas Jefferson convey to the audience that the character is the same ethnicity as always, even if the actor is not? Anyone who thinks this issue is a tempest in a teapot need only look at the recent heated debate on Broadway World's discussion board about whether the new LES MIZ production should have cast a white child as young Cosette when the actor who plays grown-up Cosette is black.
What if the shoe is on the other foot and color-blind casting leads to a white actor's playing a non-white character? That is the starting point of David Henry Hwang's serio-comedy YELLOW FACE, currently playing at Theater J, at the DC Jewish Community Center, which uses the casting issue to launch into a riff on peoplehood and on prejudice against Asian-Americans. Mr. Hwang successfully blends his imagination with events of the last twenty years in show business and politics, framing them through the lens of "DHH" (played by Stan Kang), a playwright not so loosely based on Mr. Hwang. The complex story starts with a controversy in which Mr. Hwang played a key part: producer Cameron Mackintosh's (Brandon McCoy) plan to cast a white actor, Jonathan Pryce, to reprise his London role of the Eurasian "Engineer" in the Broadway production of MISS SAIGON, and Actors' Equity's insistence on casting an actor of Asian descent. DHH's friends convince him to write a letter decrying this example of "yellow face" casting, and Cameron Mackintosh announces that he will cancel the production rather than change actors. Equity backs down, Mr. Pryce wins a Tony, and DHH, vilified in the press for his letter, writes a new play, FACE VALUE, about his experiences.
The heart of Act I concern's DHH's efforts to find an ethnic Asian actor to play the lead in FACE VALUE. As the out-of-town tryout date draws near, DHH discovers an actor who is perfect in the role, except for his name, Marcus G. Dahlman (Rafael Untalan), and his Occidental appearance. DHH convinces himself that Marcus's Siberian Jewish ancestry makes him Asian, and talks him into adopting a stage name: Marcus Gee. As Asian-Americans lionize Marcus as their next big star and Marcus feels a sense of belonging for the first time in his life through involvement in "his" new-found Asian-American community, DHH grows so upset with his own role in the charade, that he fires Marcus. FACE VALUE flops, but Marcus lands on his feet: The first act ends with a hilarious send-up of THE KING AND I, starring Marcus Gee.
Act II focuses on the injustices against prominent Chinese-Americans in the late 1990's, conflating accusations of spying against Wen Ho Lee with accusations against the bank owned by DHH's father (both played by Al Twanmo). The story in the second act moves in such a different direction from the first that each might have better been presented as separate one-act plays. Although Act II has its share of comedy, it is difficult to laugh at Wen Ho Lee's plight, or at that of DHH's father, as he fights cancer at the same time he fights bigots in Congress. At the end of the show, DHH breaks the fourth wall, to tell the audience which characters in both acts are real and which fictitious, undoubtedly causing many to go home and google names and events.
Stan Kang's interpretation of DHH is rightly understated, because he has to serve as straight man to the scene stealers, primarily Marcus Gee and DHH's father, Henry Y. Hwang, known as "HYH" in the play. However, the ensemble players grab their share of laughs as well, in their multiple bit parts as celebrities and others: Tonya Beckman as Fred Thompson, Sam Brownback, and Tom Delay; Mark Hairston as John Kerry and George Will; Brandon McCoy, as Cameron Mackintosh and a reporter known as "name withheld on advice of counsel"; Sue Jin Song as Lily Tomlin; and Jacob Yeh as Richard Shelby and Margaret Cho. Mr. Hwang and director Natsu Onoda Power satirize the play itself by not only using color-blind casting in the bit parts, but also sex and age-blind casting.
YELLOW FACE is entertaining, but it is more as well. It is impossible to leave the theater without wondering what peoplehood consists of and when it is appropriate to treat individuals as members of a larger group and when it is not. I suspect that many audience members will want to attend more than once, not only to help puzzle these questions out, but to catch the jokes that rapidly fly by so that it is easy to miss them the first time through.
YELLOW FACE is appearing through February 23rd, at Theater J, at the DC Jewish Community Center's Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theater, 1529 16th St., NW, Washington, DC 20036. For tickets, priced at $35 and up, call 1-800-494-8497 or purchase online at www.theaterj.org . A wiki research site about the events depicted in the play can be found at https://sites.google.com/site/yellowfacedramaturgy/ .
Photo Credit: C. Stanley Photography