‘Yellow Face’: For this playwright, it’s personal
BOSTON – In the years when I was working nights and couldn’t sleep, I would stumble onto movies about a Chinese-American, Honolulu-based detective named Charlie Chan.
The early movies featured East Asian actors, but they were soon discarded in favor of a series of Caucasian actors playing the role in “yellow face.”
It was a time when Asians – if and when they did appear in movies – were working in laundries or building railroads and speaking in broken English.
So in 1990 when Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang (often referred to as DHH) learned one of the few Broadway roles written for an Asian character – the role of the Eurasian pimp The Engineer in “Miss Saigon” – was going to be played by a Caucasian – a Caucasian named Jonathan Pryce from Great Britain, no less – it set him off on a journey that eventually culminated in “Yellow Face.” He led a protest with Actor’s Equity that led to the show almost being cancelled.
That time is at the heart of Hwang’s 2007 work, now being presented through July 31 by the new troupe called the Office of War Information (Bureau of Theatre) at the Nicholas Martin Hall in the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts. “Yellow Face” is an intriguing, heartfelt, very personal piece by the author of “M. Butterfly,” the first Asian-American playwright to win a Tony, being performed by a diverse and talented cast.
Michael Hisamoto’s David Henry Hwang rides an emotional roller coaster from the time of his Tony triumph that put him atop the world to the despair of his crash-and-burn in his play “Face Value,” which closed during previews on Broadway; he captures vividly the angst and anguish of the playwright .
Hwang the playwright looks into his mirror and doesn’t like some of what he sees. He depicts himself as craving fame, a lover of pornography, not above making strange calls late at night to women he hardly knows.
Along the way he has taken some license with the truth – how much we won’t reveal here – in an effort to make his point.
“Yellow Face” is also about the Asian-American version of the American Dream, as exemplified by DHH’s father, Henry W. Hwang (Eric Cheung), a successful banker and unabashed lover of America who always wanted to be Jimmy Stewart. He falls victim to a journalistic version of a modern “Yellow Peril” scare brought about by his ties to Chinese investors.
Another key character is Marcus G. Dahlman (Adam Barrameda), whom Hwang has cast as an Asian character in his 1993 play, “Face Value.” After the brouhaha over Pryce, casts in a key role meant for an Asian-American. There’s only one problem – Dahlman isn’t Asian at all (Siberia doesn’t count) but DHH assists in covering up the fact to prevent personal embarrassment.
That then breeds resentment as Dahlman portrays himself as an Asian-American when convenient without taking on the baggage that accompanies being a member of a minority group.
DHH has a lot of fun with one character in particular, portraying a New York Times reporter called Name Withheld on Advice of Counsel (Ajay Jain) even as that reporter’s witch hunt will weight heavily on both David and Henry.
The talented ensemble also includes Mara Elissa Palma, Radha Shukla and Helen Swanson, who effectively portray a collection of parts
Director Cliff Odle moves the piece along at a brisk pace and ina clever bit of staging various cast member positioned around the space to give voice to those praising DHH, and then chronicling his fall from grace.
“Yellow Face” isn’t a perfect play. DHH has a lot to say, and at times he is all over the place and appears to be firing randomly at his targets.
Times are changing, albeit slowly, but especially in the past decade since “Yellow Face” was written. Stereotyping and bias have not been eliminated in the theater world, but non-traditional casting has provided more opportunities for minority actors and actresses. More and more minority playwrights are finding their voices.
Still, Asian-American actors and artists in theater took to Twitter in May after the highly publicized casting of Tilda Swinton and Scarlett Johansson in movie roles that were originally written as Asian characters.
David Henry Hwang and many other Asian-Americans in the theater still find themselves longing for a time when Asian-Americans wouldn’t have to closely and jealously guard each opportunity because, finally, there would be a world in which Bruce Lee would actually beat out David Carradine for the lead in “Kung Fu.”
The Office of War Information (Bureau of Theatre) production of David Henry Hwang’s “Yellow Face.” Directed by Cliff Odle. Artistic Direction by Pete Riesenberg. At the Nicholas Martin Hall in the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts through July 31. officeofwarinformation.com.