Theater Review: “Yellow Face” — Playing With Reality

By Bill Marx

The Lyric Stage Company’s production of David Henry Hwang’s Obie award-winning play is serviceably absorbing.

Yellow Face by David Henry Hwang. Directed by Ted Hewlett. Staged by the Lyric Stage Company at 140 Clarendon Street, Boston, through June 23.

(l to r) Jupiter Lê, Jenny S. Lee, Michael Hisamoto, and Mei MacQuarrie in the Lyric Stage Company production of Yellow Face. Photo: Mark S. Howard

Yellow Face is a meta-theatrical, semi-autobiographical exercise that works better than it should given the inevitable narcissistic pitfalls of Asian-American dramatist David Henry Hwang’s convoluted dramatic setup.

We are led through the multilayered plot by a self-deprecating Hwang (Michael Hisamoto), who frequently draws on a documentary component. The action begins in 1990, with the brouhaha generated in the Asian-American acting community (and Actors’ Equity) when it was announced that white actor Jonathan Pryce was slated to come to Broadway as a French-Vietnamese character in Miss Saigon, a recycling of Madame Butterfly, which had inspired Hwang’s 1988 Tony award-winning hit, M. Butterfly. In the media, Hwang condemned the choice as an exercise in “yellow face.” The fallout led Hwang to write his 1993 comedy Face Value, which lampooned the idea of casting white actors as Asians. The production previewed in Boston (it is amusing to see Carolyn Clay’s Boston Phoenix review, with its “M Turkey” headline, among the projections) and then dropped like an anvil on Broadway. Hwang tells us he had mistakenly hired a white performer Marcus G. Dahlman (Alexander Holden) to play an Asian character in Face Value. An amusing attempt at a cover-up failed; the performer, taking the stage name of Marcus Gee, which was concocted for him by Hwang, was fired from the production. Then Gee goes on to play other Asian-American roles, winning accolades as the lead in The King and I.

The first half of the play deals with the issue of when race should be considered in casting with light comedic flair. Hwang’s exasperation at falling into a politically correct trap of his own devising takes on the trappings of farce. The second half of Yellow Face is more interesting: real-life events pull the play in a darker direction. Asian Americans, including faux-Asian Gee, are charged with aiding the Chinese government by Congressional Republicans insisting that nefarious oriental forces interfered with the 1996 election. And Bill Clinton’s Department of Justice (with an assist from reporting in the NYTimes) charged an Asian-American scientist with espionage (swiping nuclear secrets). The script’s tone moves toward the tragic-comic, particularly once Hwang’s father, the owner of a major Asian-American bank, is pulled into the government’s dragnet. This widening and deepening of dramatic focus — intertwining the domestic and the political — is refreshing. American plays don’t often tackle how systemic hostility propels injustice by the powers-that-be. This is compelling stuff, but the balance is off: scrutinizing the notion of cultural “authenticity” doesn’t jell with attacks on opportunistic perfidy in government and the mainstream media.

The Lyric Stage production of this Obie-winning play is serviceably absorbing. Director Ted Hewlett and designer Szu-Feng Chen keep the self-referential proceedings clear; the twists and turns are shoved along with vim and vigor. But there are no dramatically striking or visually effective choices. Attempts at extra-theatricality fail. For example, ironically “revealing” sentences are projected in large type on the floor from time to time. But the actors often block the audience’s view of the words — if you can’t read the text the effect is rendered moot. Dressing room areas at the back of the stage are nothing more than decorative Brechtian baubles. The supporting cast members (Jupiter Lê, Jenny S. Lee, Mei MacQuarrie, and J.B. Barricklo) take on numerous roles, but their characters are not sufficiently individualized. On the night I attended, the actors were speaking so fast (mostly during the first half of the evening) that you could not make out what was being said. At times, the performers’ accents were frustratingly unconvincing.

(l to r) Michael Hisamoto and Alexander Holden in the Lyric Stage Company production of Yellow Face. Photo: Mark S. Howard

As the protagonist, Hisamoto skillfully embodies Hwang’s self-satisfaction, satirizing the ego boost left-wingers get when they do the right thing. (Hwang goes out of his way to muddy his image; we see him purchase porn and flirt in chat rooms.) Hisamoto is less successful at expressing the character’s anger at what is happening around him, his rage at the loss of control as the calamities escalate. Gee is a kind of revelatory “monster” created by Hwang — yet neither character shows much disgust at the ideological hypocrisy on all sides, including the left. Holden’s performance doesn’t elevate Gee above the status of thematic cypher — the bland figure does not come off as Hwang’s doppelganger (though he has a relationship with Hwang’s ex), but as a salt-of-the-earth alternative to the dramatist, active in Asian-American causes and educated in Chinese culture.

Thus the end of the play suggests the limitations of American drama when it ventures out of the domestic and confronts political issues. Hwang informs us that — after grappling with the ambiguities of identity, assimilation, and the machinations of a reporter from the NYTimes — he will continue in his search for the real. But, given what we have seen, that doesn’t make much sense: Yellow Face presents plenty of irrefutable and brutal facts. Most memorably, the mistreatment of Asian Americans via US witch hunts (the genuine articles, not Trumpian fantasies) driven by fears of China, culminating with the fate of Hwang’s banker father and the 1999 imprisonment of Chinese scientist Wen Ho Lee, who was falsely accused of espionage by the Clinton administration. (Clinton publicly apologized to Lee after the charges were dismissed.) Government persecution of Asian Americans has not ended. Under Trump, the Department of Justice initiated the China Initiative, which critics insist ran roughshod over legal niceties, supposedly for the sake of protecting national security.

Yellow Face premiered in 2007; in our present moment, the play’s picture of maltreatment looks somewhat genial. Violence against the Asian-American community, including questions raised by the behavior of the police, was kicked into hyperdrive by the rise of Covid. Hwang tells us he is on a quest for the real. That’s nice; but shouldn’t the point be to challenge us to do something about the real harm being done in our name?

Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of the Arts Fuse. For four decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and the Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created the Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.

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