He has a few identity issues
A writer pursues truth by any means necessary. Spinning real life into fiction -- in essence, lying with artistic intent -- is one of the oldest methods for accessing the complicated hidden meanings beneath reality’s often misleading veneer.
David Henry Hwang’s captivating new play, “Yellow Face,” which had its world premiere Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum, re-imagines a series of flashpoint incidents from the playwright’s past concerning matters of race, identity and, that most puzzling of all concepts, authenticity. It’s a low-boil farce masquerading as a documentary (complete with an announcer played by Tony Torn) in which fact and fantasy mix and mingle like nobody’s business.
In an age when narratives are doctored for dubious purposes (selling memoirs is the least of it), we’ve become increasingly anxious about the blurring of fiction and nonfiction. But we shouldn’t forget that, in the hands of an artist like Hwang, creative fibbing can lead to the kind of revelation straightforward autobiography just can’t scratch.
Too bad the production, directed by Leigh Silverman, isn’t as buoyant as the writing. The flat-footed staging, marked by caricatured acting and sluggish timing, lacks the required comic ping. But don’t let that put you off from seeing a play that’s Hwang’s most intellectually resonant since his Tony-winning “M. Butterfly.”
“Yellow Face” harks back to an earlier Hwang work you probably haven’t heard much about: “Face Value,” a play that was written in response to the controversy surrounding “Miss Saigon,” the West End musical featuring Jonathan Pryce as a Eurasian pimp. When it was announced that “Miss Saigon” was coming to Broadway in 1991 with Pryce as the star, Hwang was one of the leaders in the protest against the casting of a white actor in a role of color. A fracas ensued on the Great White Way when union officials at Actors’ Equity initially barred Pryce from acting in the production, then reversed its decision after producer Cameron Mackintosh said he was canceling the show. Pryce went on to win the Tony for his performance, and Hwang gave vent to his feeling in a play that notoriously closed in previews on Broadway in 1993.
Given the poor showing “Face Value” had, you would think Hwang would want to leave this chapter of his career behind him. But “Yellow Face” contrives a new backstage scenario for his old flop in which Hwang inadvertently casts a non-Asian actor for a principal Asian role in the play. Marcus (Peter Scanavino) is brought in after receiving good reviews for an “Asian” production on the West Coast. He looks Caucasian but, hungry for work, is intentionally vague about his background.
DHH (Hoon Lee), the playwright’s surrogate, wants the producers to hire Marcus after being impressed by his audition. So what if the part requires an Asian to don whiteface during the protest scene against “Miss Saigon”? In a pointed instance of self-irony, DHH lambastes his producer for saying that Marcus doesn’t have Asian features and might confuse audiences when he takes off his whiteface makeup and still looks white. “Asian faces come in a variety of shapes and sizes -- just like any other human beings,” he says, before being hoisted on his own petard of political correctness.
When DHH discovers that Marcus really doesn’t have a drop of Asian blood, he panics and tries to pass him off as a “Russian Siberian Asian Jew” to a bunch of activist students at the Asian American Resource Center in Boston, where the play is in tryouts.
It’s a funny scene, even if it’s staged with not much more subtlety than a community theater revue skit, a problem that hampers much of the work’s topsy-turvy comedy.
Eventually DHH has the producers fire Marcus, which isn’t such a tragedy given the show’s ultimate fate. And don’t underestimate the ever-resourceful Marcus, who’s able to parlay his stint in a DHH play into a flourishing career as an Asian theater star. Not only does he triumph in “The King and I,” but he even starts dating DHH’s ex-girlfriend, actress Leah (Julienne Hanzelka Kim), a development that only exacerbates the playwright’s resentment.
As DHH sees it, Marcus is an “ethnic tourist” and opportunist, yet when the U.S. government begins harassing people of Asian descent (everything from the investigations into whether the Chinese were funneling money to the Democratic Party to the arrest of nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee), it’s Marcus who leads the civil rights charge and eventually travels to China in search of some lost connection he hauntingly feels in the music of the Dong people.
“Yellow Face” has fun tracking the slipperiness of racial identity. What does it mean to be a member of an ethnic community? Who can claim to be oppressed? Is our public identity merely a mask? And if so, where does our true nature lie?
These questions have been of enduring dramatic interest to Hwang, and “Yellow Face” finds him in fine contemplative form. There may seem something self-indulgent about a play in which the playwright has a central role. And some may look askance at the way Hwang brings in the story of his late father, Henry Y. Hwang, a prominent California banker who was embroiled in a front-page New York Times scandal involving money laundering for the Chinese government. (Tzi Ma plays both HYH and Wen Ho Lee, and “Yellow Face” draws parallels between their situations.)
But Hwang’s tale, though undeniably personal, goes beyond his own narcissistic interests. He’s trying to understand the crazy contradictions of being a minority in ceaselessly striving America. And his emotional investment in the subject and his ability, as a dramatist, to imagine the situation from multiple perspectives lends his discussion a felt wisdom that’s a refreshing change from the shallow polemics we’re too often bombarded with.
The play earns its stage time, even if Silverman has only so-so results with her actors, many of whom have the tricky task of playing multiple characters. Ma finds HYH’s obsessive paternal voice and Kim captures Leah’s edginess as the ex-girlfriend, but they become exceedingly broad in their sketchier roles.
Lee’s DHH makes an attractive stand-in for the author, though he doesn’t quite possess Hwang’s artsy flair. As Marcus, Scanavino has ample boyish charm, yet his youthful exuberance sometimes gets the better of him, as witnessed by his tendency to flare into boisterous outbursts.
On a spare set marked by a large mirror in which the audience can see a hazy reflection of itself, the actors are given chairs to occupy when they’re not directly involved in a scene. This is a common enough practice, though for some reason the actors look like souls in limbo whenever they sit down. Silverman, who directed Lisa Kron’s “Well” on Broadway, hasn’t created a theatrical universe the cast can be confident in.
Hwang’s play deserves better. It may not have many answers to offer, but the questions it puts forth about who we are as a people cut to the heart of America’s promise.
Where: Mark Taper Forum,
135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays
Ends: July 1
Price: $42 to $55
Contact: (213) 628-2772
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes