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The Face of Truth: David Henry Hwang on His New Play, Yellow Face

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You've heard of whiteface, redface, and blackface, but you might not have heard of yellowface. David Henry Hwang's new play, Yellow Face, will change all that.

While whiteface and redface refer to animal species — or, in the case of red-faced, a visage flushed with embarrassment — blackface refers to actors painting their faces black and portraying stereotyped characters from minstrel shows. Likewise, yellowface refers to actors, usually of European descent, made up to be East Asian. Yellow Face, which is a co-production of Center Theatre Group and the Public Theater of New York in association with East West Players, will open in New York this autumn and already opened for previews on May 10 at the Mark Taper Forum.

In 1991, Hwang was one of the Asian-American voices raised against the casting of Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce as the half-Asian engineer in the Madame Butterfly–inspired musical Miss Saigon. Asian-American actors asked, “Why not us?”

In decades past, Asian characters had been portrayed by white actors, notably Marlon Brando in the 1956 film The Teahouse of the August Moon and Peter Sellers in 1980's The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu — but hadn't the time rightfully arrived for Asian characters to be portrayed by Asians?

At the time, Hwang had become the most prominent Asian-American playwright, having won a Tony Award for Best Play for 1988's M. Butterfly, which re-examined Giacomo Puccini's opera with a critical eye. This was before M. Butterfly became a 1993 David Cronenberg movie that was, says Hwang, more about how “all romantic love is self-delusion” than his intended theme of “self-delusion in the context of cultural differences.”

For those unfamiliar with M. Butterfly, Hwang based the play on a titillating tidbit that seemed too outlandish to be true: A French diplomat had carried on a decade-long affair with a Chinese opera star without realizing that the actor was a female impersonator (originally, the Peking Opera had only male actors). By subverting the tale of the East Asian woman used as a pleasant diversion and then left behind, Hwang's play raised issues of Western paternalism and fantasy similar to those raised in the late author Edward Said's work on Orientalism.

In contrast, Miss Saigon seemed not only to raise and praise the submissive East Asian woman myth, but also, by casting a white actor as a half-Asian character, seemed an affront to the slow progress that Asian-Americans actors were making on stage and screen. Despite the protest and the opposition of the first Asian-American playwright to win a Tony, Pryce went on to play the part — and won a Tony for it.

Even though Hwang had written his first off-Broadway play, F.O.B., in his early 20s, he never expected M. Butterfly to become a Broadway hit. In fact, he says, the actors had a betting pool on when the production would fold.

He followed that success with Golden Child, which — after its 1996 world premiere at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa — also went to Broadway and was nominated for a Tony. Since then, Hwang has been busy. He co-wrote (with Linda Woolverton and Robert Falls) the book for the Disney-produced Elton John–Tim Rice musical Aida, worked on Disney's Tarzan and wrote some screenplays. Working on such non-Asian-related works was strangely relaxing since he didn't have the additional level of responsibility of representing Asians and Asian Americans. It was also a measure of his success — proof that he wasn't boxed into an ethnic niche.

A decade passed before Hwang finally decided to write an original play.

He took three months to write Yellow Face in 2005, and then workshopped it. He has continued rewriting it during rehearsals at the Mark Taper Forum — the venue where he premiered his adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song. (That went on to garner Hwang a third Tony nomination.)

It's not surprising that he decided to write about the Miss Saigon controversy. Hwang compares his plays to a photo album and feels “privileged to have snapshots of himself” to read and help him remember where he was at that time.

A lot has changed since Hwang grew up in the San Gabriel Valley. He can remember a time when his parents were unable to buy a house in San Marino, a time before the demographics changed in favor of Asian Americans in many local cities, a time before the Wen Ho Lee case and the naming of East West Players' theater in his honor.

In a recent telephone interview with the Pasadena Weekly, the Los Angeles–based Hwang described Yellow Face, saying, “This is a mockumentary. DHH is the main character, and this play has things that actually happened and things that are invented.

“[DHH] inadvertently, after leading a protest against Jonathan Pryce, a white actor as an Asian lead, casts a white actor as an Asian lead in the play, Face Value.”

The comedy comes in as he attempts to cover up his mistake.

For those who don't know, Face Value is one of Hwang's notable failures, a play starring Law & Order: SVU's B.D. Wong that went to Broadway in 1993 and closed after previews. Informed that Wikipedia describes Yellow Face as a rewrite of that failed effort, Hwang says, “I don't know if I'd call it a rewrite. That's when you're reworking or you're going back to that play to fix it.”

Hwang hopes that there's been some evolution of his ideas since the early 1990s, but this new play does take on some of the original issues he addressed in Face Value, namely those of cultural identity and “the complexity of authenticity as a concept.”

Authenticity? That's a familiar issue. “Authenticity is an ambiguous term,” he adds, after being asked about writer and activist Frank Chin. Chin, who lives in Los Angeles, has labeled Hwang and other Asian-American writers as “inauthentic.” Hwang quotes Chin in Yellow Face as labeling DHH “a white racist asshole.”

Yet, Hwang states, "I really like him as a writer. I kind of consider him to be my literary father, which then makes me a disowned son. When F.O.B. was first done in New York, I was 23 and I looked on Frank as a pioneer."

Hearing Chin's criticism, Hwang acknowledges, “It hurt my feelings.” But that was more than 20 years ago. While Hwang has “kind of gone back and forth” on his feelings about Chin's criticism, he's glad that now there are a lot more Asian-American playwrights who can represent different points of view. Obviously Yellow Face, with a protagonist named DHH, represents Hwang's own viewpoint.

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