David Henry Hwang
Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles
May 10-July 1, 2007
with Julienne Hanzelka Kim, Kathryn A. Layng, Hoon lee, Tzi Ma,
Directed by Leigh Silverman
Face it, some navels are just more interesting to contemplate than others. Some navels are surrounded by beautiful bodies; that idea does not need a lot of elaboration. Metaphorical navel contemplation, on the other hand, is of little interest to most outside observers, that is unless the mind that is absorbed in self contemplation is analytical, clever, and a mite self-deprecating. Fortunately for theater goes, playwright David Henry Hwang can count himself among the latter. A bit narcissistic, but with a wonderful edginess, making the evening worthwhile.
The lead character in Yellow Face, 1993, a co-production of the Center Theatre Group and The Public Theater in New York, in association with the East West Players, is none other than Hwang himself (played by Hoon Lee). It is a memoir, or docu-drama, of the period of his life between his greatest flop, Face Value, and the present. The armature is based on solid fact. Miss Saigon was coming to Broadway and Jonathan Pyrce, a non-Asian, was cast in the star part as the Eurasian pimp, for which he had to don makeup or yellow face to create the proper appearance thus depriving an Asian actor of the opportunity to take a major part (rather than the usual fate of Asians who were only being cast in minor roles). After the success of M. Butterfly, California born, Stanford educated, Hwang found himself pressured to become the spokesman for Asian Americans in the theater. Hwang was drafted to lead the charge against this casting against race, and he pressured Actor’s Equity into a formal protest. When the producer of Miss Saigon, then threatened pulling the play if Pyre quit, Actors Equity did an about face and Hwang felt assaulted from all sides. Face Value came out of this experience and was based on the miss-casting of Miss Saigon. This much is true to life.
It is also true that Hwang’s father was the founder of a Chinese/American bank that was investigated by Congress for supposed connections to the government of China – only to have that investigation quietly dropped. Many other pieces – such as the investigation and imprisonment of Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee – are easily recalled from the news of the time. China was rapidly growing in economic and world power. With it, American xenophobia was on the upswing too.
Face Value was indeed a flop in Boston and did change leads when it crashed again in New York. But herein lies the embroidered story Hwang has laid over the armature: The character, David Henry Hwang, playwright of Yellow Face, is caught having cast an unknown Caucasian actor, Marcus (Peter Scanavino), in the leading Asian role of his disaster. Under questioning in an interview before militant Asian students, Hwang makes up a farfetched Jewish-Siberian-Eurasian identity for his creation. To Hwang’s dismay the theater world hates the play but falls for Hwang’s fabrication. Marcus goes on from the flop to become the darling of the Asian American theater community itself and the darling of directors who want to hire an Asian actor. Previously Marcus had been a nobody who felt no connection to any group. He thrived on this newly found identity, inventing himself as he basked in media and community approval, and did not reveal the fiction to anyone. Hwang became his hero, much to Hwang’s disgust.
Meanwhile Hwang railed against Marcus for carrying on the deceit; against the community for embracing the fabrication; against America for seeing him in Asian-American terms; and against anyone who did not recognize him as Asian. He was in a double double bind born of his own loathing, projection, and search for identity.
You name it; the themes of Yellow Face are many and easily found: What is racism? When is it racism and when is it Balkanization of the nation? Is anyone pure anything? Does any one feel as though he really belongs? And to what? In the 1945 Paul Robeson recorded Ballad for Americans, a celebration of the American melting pot. Is the melting pot even PC any more?
Where is the line between truth and fiction? Does the press not distort reality by what it chooses to report? Is not every fictional story in a sense autobiographical? Does not everyone fictionalized his own story in the telling? The questions raised are real but what makes Yellow Face mostly a satisfying theatrical experience is that they are raised with humor and Hwang’s wonderful use of language. Only at the very end was he unable to resist becoming preachy.
Staged simply with the backdrop an enormous wooden frame enclosing what looked like a mirror in which the audience near the stage of the Taper saw its own reflection, and looked just like a shiny surface reflecting light from the back. The idea apparently being to ask us all to contemplate our own identity. Not every one felt that effect. Chairs were simply arranged for the actors and the format was like a cross between a docu-drama complete with narration and a workshop production.
Hoon Lee inhabits his role so well that it took a quick look at intermission at the photo of Hwang himself to persuade me that Lee was an actor portraying the playwright’s fictionalized version of the himself. Lee is totally convincing from shame to anger to anguish and intense jealousy when Marcus gets both his ex-girlfriend, and the leading role in The King and I under the pretext he’s Asian.
Perhaps only edited and fictionalized navel contemplation can entertain. Certainly transcripts of real therapy sessions are not literature. Though some tightening of the script could still be done, Yellow Face certainly succeeds at provoking and entertaining.