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Theater Review: David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face at the Mark Taper Forum

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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.

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.)

Among the stand-outs in the cast are Tzi Ma in numerous roles including Hwang’s father, and Peter Scanavino, as the white man who becomes a leading Asian personality based on some resumé tinkering. (By putting him in The King and I, Hwang reminds us of Lou Diamond Phillips, who starred in a recent tour of that warhorse after gaining fame in La Bamba, directed by the same Luis Valdez who had his own casting nightmare with a Frida Kahlo biopic.)

Others who give multiple dimensions to multiple personalities are Julienne Hanzelka Kim, Lucas Caleb Rooney, Tony Torn, and Kathryn A. Layng, the real-life wife of the playwright who, despite Yellow Face's careful blurring, knows exactly where the newspaper ends and the fish-wrapper begins.

This world premiere is a co-production between Center Theatre Group in L.A. and The Public Theater in Manhattan. At press time, the Public’s press office confirmed that the play would be produced in its 2007-08 Season, but the exact slot was yet to be announced. The production is also made in association with East West Players, which America’s paper of record called “the nation’s pre-eminent Asian American theater troupe.” There will not be a separate run at East West – whose main stage is named for this playwright, and whose health is in part owed to his father. So that 10% of the ticket price will benefit East West, order tickets online and use code 8873.

CREDITS by David Henry Hwang, directed by Leigh Silverman, with Julienne Hanzelka Kim, Kathryn A. Layng, Hoon Lee, Tzi Ma, Lucas Caleb Rooney, Peter Scanavino, Tony Torn. David Korins, set; Myung Hee Cho, costumes; Donald Holder, lights; Darron L. West, sound; James T. McDermott/Elizabeth Atkinson, stage management.

World Premiere Mark Taper Forum, May 10-July 1, 2007, produced by Center Theatre Group and The Public Theater in association with East West Players.

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