And yet! There’s been more than one actor who’s successfully passed for Siamese in that baleful showbiz stereotype of the Orient, The King and I. Yul Brynner famously made a career out of it. (He also changed his Russian parentage to Mongolian.) There are shades, too, of Lou Diamond Phillips—“the new Yul”—in the 1996 Broadway revival of The King and I.
It’s quite an irony that Yellow Face’s home, the Public Theater, is also an historic pioneer of what’s euphemistically known as “nontraditional casting.” The Public has been a color-blind theater since the days of Joe Papp. With its gifted cast playing multiple roles and diverse ethnicities, Yellow Face itself is color blind. But the text of Mr. Hwang’s play isn’t!
We’ve entered Pirandello land (and it’s confusing). Yellow Face takes flight in the second act where the issues feel authentic and Mr. Hwang’s outrage burns. The confrontation between DHH and the investigative reporter from The Times smugly revealing his bias and racism while bathing in the glow of his newspaper’s authority makes the blood boil. Mr. Hwang links the investigation of his father’s bank to the case of Wen Ho Lee, the Chinese-American nuclear scientist wrongly imprisoned in 1999 on suspicion of spying.
The dramatist makes an honorable case that his dying father was the innocent, tragic victim of a Congressional anti-Asian witch hunt. Certainly the finest scenes in the play belong to father and son: To the embarrassment of the sophisticated Mr. Hwang, his father believed heart and soul in the American Dream.
The remarkable actor Francis Jue is the father (and also gives a very witty impersonation of B.D. Wong). Anthony Torn is brilliant as the smarmy Name Withheld on the Advice of Counsel. The assured direction of Yellow Face is by Leigh Silverman.