Theater J Yellow FaceBy David Siegel • Feb 16th, 2014 • Category: Reviews
Theater J: (Info) (Web)
Theatre J, Washington DC
Through February 23rd
2:15 with intermission
$50-$65/$45-$60 Seniors, Member/$35-$50 Military (Plus Fees)
Reviewed February 12th, 2014
David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face currently at Theater J, is an illuminating, lively excursion into the playwright’s inner turmoil and the xenophobic suspicions evocative of a certain time in America. With fascinating, eye-catching direction and tempo set by Natsu Onoda Power, Yellow Face is an evening of self-knowing laughter that changes course after intermission, veering into the dark shadows and rude awakening of living in America when one is considered an “outsider.”
At its start Yellow Face explores Hwang’s public and private turmoil in the years after he won the 1988 Tony Award for M’Butterfly, that made him a celebrity. He “found himself anointed as a spokesperson for the Asian-American Community across the land” as Ari Roth, Artistic Director for Theater J, wrote in his program notes.
The play is seen through the eyes of Hwang’s own creation, a doppelgänger of himself, the character named DHH (played by Stan Kang, as a man one-step behind what is happening, often enough trying and failing to writing and intellectualize his way out of jams until his own life and that of his father are on the line). The play takes off from Hwang’s early efforts to lead a protest by the Asian-American Community against the casting of a Caucasian actor in the role of a Eurasian pimp in the original Broadway production of Miss Saigon.
DHH is outraged that Broadway would resort to Yellow Face, the casting of a non-Asian actor playing the role of an Asian character. But he becomes more tentative and backtracks as the issue of casting is re-framed into one of artistic freedom. DHH finds himself confronted by a gaggle of characters based upon real-life individuals, who assert he stands for nothing. The characters are played by a delightfully winning ensemble of actors including Tonya Beckman, Mark Hairston, Brandon McCoy, Sue Jin Song and Jacob Yeh. The ensemble inhabit and become one with an incredibly delicious, wide range of characters that range from BD Wong, Lily Tomlin, Margaret Cho, Republican and Democrat US Senators, ex-lovers, Broadway big-wigs, student protesters and more; all with eager, total spot-on enthusiasm and effectiveness.
Hwang’s real father becomes a character named HYH, with a nuanced, emotionally sensitive performance by Al Twanmo. HYH tries to provide some insights to his son DHH about his own youthful desires to come to America from Shanghai, China. How he wanted to live his “real life, the one he was meant to live”; not the “fake life” he lived in China. “My real life was here in America” said HYH as a backdrop of American film stars such as Humphrey Bogart are projected to accentuate his feelings.
Then comes DHH’s own utter mortification when he casts a white actor (a joyful Rafael Untalan who plays the fictional character Marcus Gee with sincere, understated zeal) to play the featured role as an Asian in his own new play. How does DHH react to his own Yellow Face casting? Well, he convinces himself and others that the actor is a “Siberian Jew,” since after all, Siberia is in Asia isn’t it? DHH wants so desperately to glosses over what doesn’t quite fit. And for a while, he does just that.
After intermission, Yellow Face goes into a totally different direction, without a hint of humor. It left your reviewer trying to think of a parallel, coming up with this; the political aspects of a Kushner-like Angels in America scene with Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg interrogating each other. Hwang now has us in a dramatic presentation that looks down into a pool of water to see something awful; a nasty sludge of xenophobia aimed at Chinese-Americans too easily stirred up by journalists bent on a front page byline. Hwang takes the audience on a surface journey through US politics, government investigations, international intrigue and journalistic over reach. The chilling presentation by Brandon McCoy as a creepy journalist called “Name Withheld on Advice of Counsel” made me shudder.
The set design for Yellow Face by Luciana Stecconi is a mass of floor to ceiling file cabinets along with two small play areas at each of the wings of the stage, one representing DHH’s office. Lighting design by Dan Covey and projections by Jared Mezzocchi which are a slide-show of multi-cultural faces, names and words, provide needed dramatic visual flair to successfully emphasize the goings on. Sound design by Chris Baine puts the audience in the mood with pre-show music including some Mandarin language hip-hop.
Yellow Face can seem un-cohesive at times. It can be frustrating with its unconventionally abrupt switch in tone from Act I satirical underpinnings that lighten repugnant issues, to the denser bulk of sensibilities of Act II that cut so close to the bone of playwright Hwang. But the play, especially in its arguments from a less often dramatized perspective, can lead to quite an awakening, when open to it.
History fades. There may come a time, when many may not know Miss Saigon from “Miss Piggy” or Win Hoe Lee from Winn-Dixie. But the issues Yellow Face asks us to ponder are universal and all-too-sadly timeless; racial xenophobia, identity politics, family struggles.
So applause to Theater J for producing its first play focused on the Asian-American experience and expanding the reach of its repertoire. Who knows, maybe over time, a phrase used in Yellow Face to explain the unexplainable will be shown wrong, “it can’t be helped, nothing can be done.”
Note: The 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama was awarded to Tracy Lett’s August, Osage County. Finalists included Yellow Face by David Henry Hwang and Dying City by Christopher Shinn. David Henry Hwang received a 2008 OBIE Award for Playwriting of Yellow Face. In 2013 he received the Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/10146.
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on ShowBizRadio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, Alexandria's American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with Arlington's American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.