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Reviewed by:
  • Yellow Face
  • Samuel Park
Yellow Face. By David Henry Hwang. Directed by Leigh Silverman. Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles. 22 May 2007.

Yellow Face is a theatrical faux-memoir, an inventive blend of fact and fiction in which playwright David Henry Hwang highlights the elusive nature of racial categories and troubles minority activists' investment in identity politics. In his first "straight" play since 1998's Tony-nominated Golden Child, Hwang returns to the dramatic genre for which he is best known, revisiting issues that have preoccupied him in the past, highlighting the instability of signifiers and the impossibility of "authentic" selfrepresentation. But unlike his other plays, which were written in the early days of the multicultural debate and championed "Asian American" as a coalitional identity, Yellow Face pinpoints the difficulty of rehearsing such monolithic communities in a globalized world, ultimately questioning the viability of race as a successful marker of difference.

As the play begins, Hwang draws from his own public experience as an advocate for Asian American artists, recounting his frustrating role as a leading voice against the Broadway staging of the Cameron Mackintosh–produced West End musical Miss Saigon. A seminal moment in Asian American theatre politics and discussed at length in such studies as

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Hoon Lee (DHH) in Yellow Face. Photo: Craig Schwartz.

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Hoon Lee (DHH) in Yellow Face. Photo: Craig Schwartz.

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Karen Shimakawa's work on Asian American abjection, the protests began when Mackintosh hired British actor Jonathan Pryce to play the role of the Eurasian Engineer, a decision that angered Asian American actors. Activists also took issue with the musical's retelling of the problematic Madama Butterfly opera, now set during the Vietnam War and with a libretto perpetuating colonialist fantasies of female Asian self-sacrifice for the sake of a European male. Through a series of quick sketches, with actors playing multiple roles and the "narrator" announcing different settings and times, Hwang provides, at lightning speed, a recap of those events.

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Tony Torn (unnamed New York Times reporter) and Hoon Lee (DHH) in Yellow Face. Photo: Craig Schwartz.

Those protests serve as backstory and the play shifts thematically into gear when DHH (Hoon Lee), Hwang's alter ego in the play, writes a play about mistaken racial identities called Face Value in response to the Miss Saigon debacle. In this new play, the lead character, an Asian American activist, is supposed to infiltrate a production wearing white-face, only to reveal later that he is Asian. But, much to DHH's horror, in his zeal to avoid stereotypical assumptions of "Asian" physical features he accidentally casts a Caucasian actor, Marcus Dahlman (Peter Scanavino), in the role of the activist. Face Value, of course, is the play that Hwang wrote in real life in response to Miss Saigon, though that play starred the Chinese American actor Dennis Dun during its Boston previews, later replaced by B. D. Wong for its brief New York run. With the twist of the Caucasian actor passing himself off as Asian, Hwang is able to examine the hall of mirrors surrounding race and ethnicity in contemporary society, demonstrating not only how Marcus ironically profits from his newfound status as a potentially "oppressed" man of color, but also how that "oppression" has less to do with one's actual ethnic background than with how one attempts to perform one's identity in a world fond of neat classifications.

This world premiere production of Yellow Face, staged in anticipation of its off-Broadway run at the Public Theater, maintained a hyper-energetic, fast-paced farcical style in act 1, reaching its highest comic heights during the extended sequences in which DHH scrambles to cover up his casting mistake, going so far as giving his actor a new name, "Marcus Gee," and a "Siberian Jew" ethnic background. In act 2, the play manages a successful tonal shift, as Hwang moves from the farce of racial classifications to a more serious exploration of the consequences of racialized discourse. When the play brings up the infamous...


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pp. 280-283
Launched on MUSE
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