Surely, I have never been part of a more raucous audience than when I saw David Henry Hwang’s latest play, Yellow Face, at New York’s Public Theater in December 2007. The man at the end of the row in front of us LITERALLY FELL OUT OF HIS SEAT from guffawing too energetically. I know you won’t dare ask, but you’re thinking it anyway … no, he wasn’t APA … he was as pale as pale could be. No one went unskewered, least of all DHH himself, who comes to life on stage as a character of the same initials. Two years later, reading the script thankfully proves almost as fun …
As rollicking as it is, Yellow Face is ultimately a multi-layered, mind-bending, assumption-busting theatrical accomplishment. It’s also true American theater at its best. “Though inevitably labeled an Asian American playwright,” writes New York Times former chief theater critic now major op-ed columnist, “Hwang has actually been among the quintessential American playwrights, period, of his time.”
The character-known-as-DHH begins the play at the tail end of a scandal: DHH’s leading man, Marcus Gee, has been outed as completely non-Asian. And, oh gasp, Gee’s yellowface posturing was orchestrated by none other than DHH himself: “… As for my own role in the story, some Asian Americans noticed, but they chose to forgive me for my mistakes,” DHH insists. Well, not exactly ALL: “David Henry Hwang is a white racist asshole,” perennial bad-boy Frank Chin‘s voice proclaims a mere few minutes into the opening. And thus the play unfolds …
Following the Tony Award-winning success of gender-bender M. Butterfly, DHH’s next Broadway effort proved an utter failure … written in protest against the 1990s yellowfacing of British actor Jonathan Pryce in the lead Eurasian pimp role of the blockbuster musical Miss Saigon, DHH’s Face Value closed before even making it out of previews. In a moment of supreme irony, NYT critic/introduction writer Frank Rich even has a moment of Yellow Face-fame as he defends “Jonathan Pryce’s brilliant performance … as essential to Miss Saigon.“
In this revisionist history, DHH casts a certain Marcus G. Dahlman, not only putting Dahlman in yellowface, but baptizing him as a newly mixed-race Siberian-fathered Chinese American actor named Marcus Gee. Face Value closes but Marcus Gee becomes an Asian American hero, and almost immediately lands the part of the King in a spectacular-revival-with-finally-a-real-Asian-in-the-lead-role of The King and I which brings Gee fame and fortune, not unlike another yellowfaced actor named Yul Brynner who will forever be associated with the celluloid rendition.
Interwoven with the dramatic scandal is DHH’s touching immigrant father/American-born son relationship with his own father, Henry Hwang, captured here as HYH, a staunch believer in the American Dream even after he is wrongly maligned for political wrongdoing. The real-life elder Hwang’s story is not unlike that of Wen Ho Lee, whose mistreatment is also presented alongside HYH’s struggles, as two Chinese Americans with foreign faces who desperately try to clear their seemingly unAmerican names.
Through it all, the character-known-as-DHH continues to reexamine his own self, his own face – beyond labels, eschewing limits. He promises to try and write Marcus a happy ending, and as the play ends, he himself remains searching, “And I go back to work, searching for my own face.”
To read other posts on this blog about Hwang, click here.