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  • Inspiration from the "Really Real":David Henry Hwang's Yellow Face and Documentary Theatre
  • William C. Boles (bio)

According to David Henry Hwang, two literary influences for his Obie-winning play Yellow Face were Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie and Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night, both of which rely on a stand-in character for the author as he revisits painful autobiographical memories.1 In writing Yellow Face, Hwang did not want the same thing to happen to his literary doppelgänger DHH that happened to Tom Wingfield and Edmund Tyrone, namely, paling in comparison to the rest of the play's richly defined characters. However, the more he wrote, the less concerned Hwang became: "I found that…creating a character that I actually gave my name to…liberated me to make him a character…. It's kind of counterintuitive, but by naming him after myself he became more of a character."2 Aiding Hwang in separating himself from the fictional DHH was his recent performative turn in Greg Pak's short film Asian Pride Porn, where he played himself hawking "politically correct Asian porn."3 By embracing, in part, his highly self-conscious and at times self-parodying creation, Hwang imbued his literary double with much less seriousness than Williams and O'Neill did.

While the inspirational roots of the main character DHH can be traced back to two canonical American plays and playwrights, the play's format stems from the realm of documentary theatre (also known as verbatim theatre), and its influence over Yellow Face and Hwang is far more significant than that of Williams and O'Neill. Over the two decades prior to the play's premiere in 2007, the documentary play had reappeared to much fanfare. In England, London's Tricycle Theatre produced numerous [End Page 216] tribunal plays, with its most successful being Richard Norton-Taylor's The Colour of Justice, while the National Theatre produced David Hare's The Permanent Way and The Power of Yes. In the United States, docudrama was equally successful with productions such as Moisés Kaufman and his Tectonic Theater's The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and The Laramie Project; Anna Deavere Smith's Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992; Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues; and Anne Nelson's The Guys. This form of drama relies on myriad informational sources, including government documents, public hearings, trial testimony, media outlet transcripts, newspaper pieces, letters, and personal interviews, all of which are used as informative as well as authoritative statements about the topic being theatrically explored. The source-based format intrigued Hwang and, in turn, jump-started his creative process. He admitted: "I'd been wanting to fix my play Face Value [which closed on Broadway in previews] for the past 17 years, but I couldn't figure out how to do it."4 Face Value had been Hwang's farcical and biting response to the yellow casting of Jonathan Pryce as The Engineer in the Broadway premiere of Miss Saigon and he intended for his play to challenge multiple misguided conceptions about ethnic identity and stereotypes.

In his later return to this subject matter, he "started thinking about the stage documentary form—making it a mock stage documentary that would poke fun at some of the absurdities of the multicultural movement."5 In regard to the "mock" part of his documentary play, he created a fictional narrative surrounding Marcus Gee, a white actor, who is mistaken as Asian by DHH and is cast as the lead in Face Value, whereby Gee then goes on to garner great success as an Asian-American actor. Surrounding this fictional story line, Hwang uses newspapers, magazines, and government sources to document specific incidents in the 1990s, including Hwang's protest against Pryce's casting, the critical and financial failure of Face Value, the rising sense of "yellow peril" associated with Chinese Americans in the 1990s, and his father's role in a campaign finance scandal surrounding Bill Clinton's run for President. Leigh Silverman, the play's director, noted that what "we ask people to believe in in the play is that everything...