Is it a new day in America with Barack Obama? David Henry Hwang’s feverish dissection of race and identity in Yellow Face at the Public Theater makes me wonder.
The term “yellow face” is a minstrelsy equivalent of blackface—part of the degrading cultural history of America that takes us from Boris Karloff’s eponymous evil genius in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) to Katharine Hepburn’s Jade Tan opposite Walter Huston’s Ling Tan in Dragon Seed (1944) to arguably the most notorious yellow face of them all, Mickey Rooney’s hysterical Japanese landlord with false teeth and slant eyes in Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961). As for Kwai Chang Caine, David Carradine’s Kung Fu warrior, let’s not even go there.
Liberated and compromised, famous and neurotic, David Henry Hwang is the uneasy product of this long-running mess of racial stereotyping. In 1988, he became renowned as the first Asian-American dramatist to win a Tony Award for his terrific M. Butterfly. It made him the poster boy for Asian-Americans as well as political correctness (the troubled background of Yellow Face). An unmistakable sign of his success: He’s written the book for two bad musicals, Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida (2000) and Disney’s Tarzan (2006). He also wrote the Tony Award-nominated new book for the 2002 revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song, whose big production number, “Chop Suey,” involved dancing human takeout food containers and chopsticks.
It can’t be easy being Mr. Hwang—as the confessional confrontation with himself in Yellow Face makes clear. The play is a powerful departure—a bitterly honest attempt by the dramatist to come to terms with himself and who he is in the tumult of racially divided America.
LIKE A DISTORTED hall of mirrors revealing many different faces, the play is a satire of race and the entertainment industry in the lacerating spirit of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled. A near-docudrama that possesses the messy urgency of agitprop theater (one of the foolish, quasi-racist politicians it features turns out to be presidential candidate Fred Thompson, no less), it’s an unforgiving, self-abasing autobiography mixed with a dollop of absurdist fiction. It’s also a revenge drama in which Mr. Hwang nails a racially biased and obnoxious New York Times reporter—known here as Name Withheld on the Advice of Counsel—who investigated his wealthy banker father for money laundering.
David Henry Hwang (“DHH” in the play) is portrayed by the excellent Hoon Lee. We learn how in 1990—only two years after the Tony Award for M. Butterfly—the dramatist became embroiled in the notorious dispute over the casting of the starring role of the Eurasian engineer in the Broadway production of Miss Saigon. Jonathan Pryce—a Welshman—was cast to reprise the role he’d played to acclaim in London (during which he wore prosthetic eyelids).
Mr. Hwang led Actors’ Equity in vigorous protest, insisting the role must go to an Asian actor. There followed heated debate about the nature of acting—or pretending to be someone else onstage. Cameron Mackintosh, the omnipotent British producer of the mega-musical, loftily refused even to audition any Asian actors, while his casting director compounded the blunder by arguing that if an Asian could have been found to play the leading role, “we would surely have sniffed him out by now.”
Mr. Mackintosh pulled the plug on Miss Saigon rather than cave in to pressure. He canceled the $10 million production (which had $25 million in advance sales)—whereupon, less than a week later, Mr. Hwang and Actors’ Equity promptly reversed their moral stand, mumbling something about “artistic freedom” winning the day.
At this point in Yellow Face, the portrait the playwright presents of his hypocritical self is unsparing. His motives were murky, and it gets worse when DHH asks us to believe that he behaved like an idiot when he went on to write a play titled Face Value and cast a white actor to play the leading role of an Asian. The actor in yellow face not only goes on to stardom in a touring version of The King and I, he also becomes a spokesman for Asian-American identity!
In mundane reality, it wasn’t quite like that.
Mr. Hwang did indeed write a play called Face Value. It was a parody of the Miss Saigon fiasco in which Caucasian actors in yellow face play Asians. His big mistake this time was that it closed in previews.
The jokey backstage version of Face Value within Yellow Face is overcrowded with conflicting ideas concerning Truth, Fiction, Identity and the masks he assumes we all wear. (Do we all wear masks?) What starts out as an amusing farce within the ambitious narrative ends up a convenient fiction I couldn’t quite believe.