Ironically, Hwang credits stories in The New York Times with inspiring his M. Butterfly, the take on the Puccini opera that became a landmark Broadway hit in 1988 and made the 31-year-old the first Asian American playwright to win a Tony for Best Play. Whatever political capital came with his success was immediately tested when mega-producer Cameron Macintosh announced that Miss Saigon, which had opened its record-breaking London premiere in 1989, was heading to Broadway.
Lead Broadway roles for Asian Americans was a dream come true for the underappreciated theater community that Hwang found himself providing a public face. When Macintosh announced that he would bring his London stars, including Caucasian Jonathan Pryce as the Eurasian “Engineer,” to America, there were protests. The producer justified it by saying he could not find an Asian American good enough for the role. That just compounded the indignity, much like Attorney General Gonzalez did this year in attempting to soothe the feelings of fired U.S. attorneys by attributing his actions to their poor performance.
It was just the latest in a long list of show-business slights for Asian Americans. And in his newfound prominence, Hwang was faced with a lose-lose decision. He could be loyal to the commercial theater that had helped make him a star, or be an advocate for the community that had helped make him a man.
What transpired is both reported and satirized in Yellow Face, which incorporates Face Value, Hwang's failed mid-'90s spoof of these issues. As Spike Lee did with the hypocrisy of blackface in Bamboozled, Face Value did with yellowface, a performance style in which Caucasian actors tinted their skin and pulled their eyelids to evoke an Asian look. As bizarre as it sounds now, stars as big as Marlon Brando, Katherine Hepburn, and Mickey Rooney joined the ruse.
Like Bamboozled, Face Value could not work its brilliant satire into sustainable drama, and famously closed its Broadway run after previews. But, thanks to Yellow Face, it is now part of this hysterical history lesson.
(Hwang, who would also protest the depiction of the woman in Miss Saigon, gave a lecture in 1994, which provides additional context.)