One of the most satisfying scenes in David Henry Hwang’s new Yellow Face, a play full of satisfying scenes, is the face-off between a playwright named David Henry Hwang and an unnamed New York Times reporter. The playwright has taken the unusual step of making himself the protagonist in this cracked-lens look at identity, cultural loyalties, and the relative reliability of commercial theater vs. commercial journalism.
The meeting between the writers ends after each gets his story: an exposé of Hwang’s father for the two-faced journalist, and a final chapter for Hwang in the saga that will become Yellow Face (continuing its world premiere through July 1 at the Mark Taper Forum, in a co-production by L.A.’s Center Theatre Group and New York’s Public Theater in association with L.A.’s East West Players).
To both ape and undercut the media’s claim of objectivity, Yellow Face employs the scattershot quoting of headlines, bylines, and datelines to identify its events and characters. Rather than reflecting on history – as set designer David Korin’s wood deck and massive gold-framed mirror suggest – Hwang at first seems to be transcribing it. The more these citations punctuate the script, however, the more holes they produce in it. Soon, we are in a limbo where fact and fantasy, whether on stage or front page, are indistinguishable.
As Hwang told Sylvie Drake in LA Stage, “Some of the stuff in the play is true and some of it isn’t and I hope it’s hard to tell the difference.”
The seesawing between drama and documentary serves Hwang’s larger goal of revealing the cost of prejudice in real terms while showing its utter absurdity through farce. He does this through his own powerful writing and the strong yet playful direction of Leigh Silverman. Silverman holds the tonal teeter-totter for her Asian and Caucasian cast, who balance their alternately scary or silly performances upon it. Future productions of this play, however, will only be this good if they can rest on the kind of sharp-yet-solid fulcrum provided by Hoon Lee's performance as Hwang. In one of the region's best stage performances so far this year, Lee makes simultaneously getting the laughs and landing the punches look easy.