OF "YELLOW FACE"
In David Henry Hwang’s production of “Yellow Face” at the Mark Taper Forum – the audience is asked to "Free Your Mind and the Rest Will Follow / Be Colorblind, Don't Be So Shallow / Before Your Read Me, You Gotta Learn How to See Me!" (Words from the En Vogue song "Free Your Mind" that was played within the performance) in his self-described mockumentary about himself. Within this production, the playwright asks us to live the words of the above-mentioned song to step into the shoes of people that are striving for their own vision of a colorblind/multicultural world that will always be filled with struggles, mistakes, victories and a constant growing process in an ever-changing world filled with surprises. Could Mr. Hwang be suggesting that labels like "Asian American," "Asian Fusion" or "Racist" mean little because it is the content and the meaning that matters most - even if it takes a dose of truth, a taste of fiction and/or a combination of both?
In this marriage of truth and fiction – Mr. Hwang walks a fine line between intelligent and satire while being committed to offer his commentary on the value of racism - for better or worse, rich or poorer (in one's experience) of receiving accurately his message(s). Just as Mr. Hwang's “Face Value” was created as the result of his opposition to Jonathan Pryce being cast in the lead of Ms. Saigon (Note: the play only ran for eight previews and was abandoned by the theatrical community), "Yellow Face" is his commentary on today's environment of diversity. Despite its humor, "Yellow Face” seriously raises questions about being Asian (in its various perceptions), political correctness, media’s (American and ethnic) nature to hide behind their stories while pushing racist beliefs, governmental discrimination of minority people and the status of race. Often during the play, this was accomplished by the characters ridiculing minority critics and journalists by illustrating their respective ill-informed and/or ill-advised positions – along with enacting the misfortunate actions of people striving to be “politically correct.”
His characters in "Yellow Face" communicates this by sharing with the audience his own experiences, challenges, lessons, obstacles, mistakes, struggles, visions, search for identity, goals, hopes and the need to be an effective torch-bearer for Asian Pacific Americans in the media through his blending of fact and fiction. At the same time - searching for finite definition of what is Asian Pacific American (and race), fulfilling his creative need to be authentic (click HERE to read David's thoughts on "Authenticity vs. Stereotypes") and searching for race/political correctness while adding "inside jokes" (i.e. B.D. Wong joke) from the entertainment community - he is seeking the share with the audience an intellectually resonant and illuminating experience that a typical autobiography cannot typically provide.
In “Yellow Face” – this point was crystallized by the lead character’s (DDH – David Henry Hwang’s pseudo alter ego) accidental miscasting decision, and the reasons behind the decision, that directly addressed the struggles of identity - along with the various aspects behind the decision process and mishaps (such as casting a non-Asian in an Asian role and the actions to "justify" the casting via stretching genealogical truths) that results in exposing the lead character to the troubles associated with Ms. Saigon. Ironically, the non-Asian actor cast as an “Asian” achieves critical acclaim (and an Asian girlfriend) as an Asian and an Asian actor - perhaps an observation and/or criticism of the Asian Pacific American communities and its media? By the time Hwang is intensely saying ridiculous things like, "Jews are both waves and particles," you're watching a flat-out comedy in which the spokesman for casting Asians in Asian roles has descended into comic insanity, as he desperately tries to salvage a situation in which he's done the very thing he railed against.
In describing the main plot of “Yellow Face” – it is a self-examination of DDH’s (aka David Henry Hwang) process/dilemma/journey of racial politics via his biting, satirized, incisive, sad and often painfully ironic recollections of the production of the play “Face Value.” DDH (played by Hoon Lee) - in “Yellow Face” faces an identity crisis after presiding over a casting blunder in his 1993 drama, “Face Value.” (a play inspired by Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled) In that debacle, Hwang's character advocates for a Caucasian-appearing actor (who received good reviews in a West Coast “Asian” production of the 442nd Battalion of WWII – unbeknownst to DDH, playing the White character) to play the Asian-American leading role in the play's Boston tryout — on the grounds that the actor has Chinese ancestry, along with assistance of Marcus being intentionally vague about his background to get the part.
This awkward situation – especially after DDH’s speech about Asian empowerment in the theater industry after his acceptance of a Tony for M. Butterfly and protest of Jonathan Pryce being cast as the lead in Ms. Saigon, that also saw union officials at Actors' Equity initially barred Pryce from acting in the production then reversed its decision after producer Cameron Mackintosh said he was canceling the show – prompted him to questionable actions, along inspiring his creation of “Face Value.” (A play where Caucasian actors tinted their skin and pulled their eyelids to evoke an Asian look – like what actors such as famous actors such as Marlon Brando, Katherine Hepburn, Fred Astaire and Mickey Rooney have done in the past)
To avoid appearing as a hypocrite, Hwang's trumpets his young star's Asian credentials, which turn out to be nonexistent – though it gave the Caucasion-appearing actor (Marcus) both a community he loves (along with an Asian female who loves Asians) and a larger sense of purpose. DDH’s desperation to save “face” undercuts the authority obtained through his past success, his integrity and his evolving views on identity politics. It leads to the question of identity politics versus narcissism.
DHH wants the producers to hire Marcus after being impressed by his audition – indirectly implying that he wasn’t able to find any qualified Asian actor. (Could this be an indirect implication that few actors of Asian descent have taken the responsibility to be properly trained, especially those within the Asian American “theater scene” along with the qualifications of the available teachers within these theater organizations?) An illuminating irony is highlighted when DHH berates his producer (Lucas Caleb Rooney) for saying that Marcus doesn't have Asian features and might confuse audiences when he takes off his whiteface makeup and still looks white. "Asian faces come in a variety of shapes and sizes — just like any other human beings," he says, while trying to maintain a level of political correctness. When DHH discovers that Marcus really doesn't have a drop of Asian blood, he panics and tries to pass him off as a "Russian Siberian Asian Jew" to a bunch of activist students at the Asian American Resource Center in Boston, where the play is in tryouts.
Hwang is able to fire Marcus (after seriously brainstorming of various ways to dispose of him discreetly), but the play closes anyway thanks to bad reviews, while Marcus continues his false life as an Asian actor. In fact, Marcus leveraged his stint into being triumphed in his role as the “King” in “The King and I” – along with dating DDH’s Asian-loving Korean American ex-girl friend, Leah (Julienne Hanzelka Kim), that thoroughly upsets him. Observing Marcus, DDH’s self-described “ethnic tourist,” achieving greater fame as a non-Asian actor playing Asian roles than Asian/Asian American actor playing Asian/Asian American roles, DDH is incensed when Marcus leads the civil rights charge to address the Wen Ho Lee situation.
Struggling through a mid-career slump and dealing with his father’s misconceptions of what is good publicity – along with the government charges against his father’s bank (Far East National Bank) of improprieties in connection with John Huang’s alleged Clinton administration influence peddling, DDH is motivated to define his “ethnic standards” to those around him – whether they are Asian or White, as he stated to Marcus. His journey includes understanding why “any publicity is good publicity” (an old Hollywood standard that can also be seen in his father’s delight in being highlighted in the New York Times), a world where Marcus can be Asian since he can also be Gary Cooper or Clark Gable existed – to his frustration, what is cultural authenticity when the music of the song-loving Dong people (who live in the remote, mountainous region of South Central China) bears strains of Eastern European influence and where an Asian “ethnic tourist” (Marcus) has to disclose that he is a Caucasian to highlight that Asians are being targeted. His tour of various ethnic and authenticity issues ask of the audience of what should be address to fulfill the soul of America's promise and what questions should be asked. Throughout the performance, one is asked what it means to be a member of an ethnic community, what is color-blind casting, who can claim to be oppressed, how much can the media shape the message, is our public identity a mask, what is the differences between racial and cultural identity, how do we discover the differences between fact & faction, etc. in a search to understand the crazy contradictions of being a minority in ceaselessly striving America.
Hoon Lee (Pacific Overtures, Urinetown) is the anchor of the production. As DDH, he plays Hwang's struggling guise that encounters thought-provoking seriousness while adding comedic touches to ironic/poignant moments. When given the proper theatrical environment by director Leigh Silverman, his honest approach keeps the audience interested – even when he acts foolish, egotistical, rude, impetuous, indignant and impulsive. When the pace drags during the second act, his gifts as a comedian and as a charismatic actor are hard pressed to effectively carry out the intentions of Mr. Hwang’s words. During these times, he sometimes relies on non-subtle ways of telegraphing conflicting emotions. Lee's DHH is an attractive substitute for the original, though he doesn’t communicate the flair or charisma of the “David Henry wang.”
Marcus (Peter Scanavino) is given a pivotal – albeit an ethnically ambiguous – role in the play of committing an act of desperation while having a conscience in his search for his own identity while being the embodiment of DDH’s worst nightmare(s). His “spoken e-mail” scenes indirectly ask the audience who is truly Asian and love scenes with Julienne Hanzelka Kim – a girl who loves Marcus partly/primarily because he is “Asian.” Scanavino effectively communicates Marcus’ shrewdness of acting with “wide-eyed innocence” of a good guy with ample boyish charm filled with youthful exuberance to his advantage to achieve and/or acquire what he wants such as DDH’s ex-girlfriend (Julienne Hanzelka Kim).
The just-mentioned Julienne Hanzelka Kim, Kathryn A. Layng (David Henry Hwang's wife) and Lucas Caleb Rooney give multiple dimensions to numerous personalities as they tackle numerous roles of both genders and varying ethnic backgrounds. At times, they get lost in the constant shuffling of accents and story lines – especially when they are transformed into various real-life public figures. This type of casting typified Mr. Hwang’s view of blurring any type of barriers related to race and gender specific typecasting.
Tzi Ma was given the challenges of going from Henry Hwang (DDH’s father) to Wen Ho Lee - (that indirectly asks the audience the various connections that exists between Henry Hwang & Wen Ho Lee - U.S.'s "China Paronia?!?!") to B.D. Wong (with the “inside joke” soliciting laughter from those who “got it”) to Margaret Cho. Julienne Hanzelka Kim plays an interesting role of an Korean/Asian girl (DDH’s ex-girlfriend) who hooks up with Marcus because she perceives (incorrectly) him as an Asian. This ensemble was part of one of the most satisfying scenes - the face-offs between DDH and an unnamed New York Times reporter (played by Tony Torn) where their words examines the role of identity, cultural loyalties and the relative reliability of commercial theater vs. commercial journalism that highlights their respective desire stories - along with an exposé of Hwang's father for a two-faced journalist while amply demonstrating how facts can be manipulated to support one's reality. An interesting sidebar is noting that DDH’s father perceives the prominent publicity he received in the New York Times resulting from the federal investigations regarding illegal campaign finance activities as a good thing – even more ironic when noting an old entertainment industry axiom that “any publicity is good publicity.”
Set designer David Korin's wood desk and the upstage wall/massive gold-mirror filled with lights (designed by Donald Holder) that create a variety of colors and patterns suggests a desire on reflecting history through the illuminated images and reflections - just like a scene from a famous Star Trek episode (The mirror/circle/doorway to other times was named “The Guardian of Forever” in the Star Trek episode titled “The City on the Edge of Forever”), but at times seemingly just list the facts of the moment while at other times providing the opportunities to view issues/scenes from different persepctives - at least for those who are able to see it since the people on the side were unable to experience the full desired effects. In an age when racial politics and minority distinctions seem more and more dizzyingly complicated, you're whatever you want to be. At the end of the program, the mirror is lifted - possibly suggesting that the search is over and/or it is a theatrical device to highlight the dialogue at the end of the play.
It has been stated (and often it's a true assessment) that weak writers used race as a crutch. However, accomplished writers use "race" as a starting point to create poignant commentary on humanity in general. The words of David Henry Hwang’s "Yellow Card" speaks with varying degrees of success with intellectual clarity and conviction on both discrimination against Chinese Americans and the difficulty of maintaining identity in a chaotically pluralistic society. In the end, his words communicates Hwang's larger goal of revealing the cost of prejudice in real terms while showing its utter absurdity through farce.
Despite not having written a full-length straight play for ten years - Mr. Hwang's wordsmith skills at crafting compelling characters with real conversations are intact. In the process of creating “Yellow Face,” he shares with the audience his views that embarrassing stereotypical depictions and racial misconceptions still exist within American and Asian American communities, along with Chinese paranoia. He communicates his anger that a non-Asian can get play substantive theatrical roles (“King” in “The King and I”) while non-Asians are unable to get these parts – though they are represented in kids and reality programming.
His words illuminates that his beginning presuppositions are not from somebody who is not exclusively part of the Asian American entertainment clique, but of a creative artist whose vision encompasses a broader scope. His words carry much greater weight and profile than the vast majority of Asian American writers for numerous reasons. They include his ability to clearly articulate his views on a wide spectrum of subjects, his ability to give informed and well-researched answers, his well-honed wordsmith skills, his ability to speak from actual experience (as oppose to well-intentioned wannabees) and his success within the entertainment industry resulting in a well-earned reputation and respect within the American entertainment world. His writing has involved from writing on exclusively Asian or Asian-American subjects, to being a writer who writes from the perspective of an Asian American to somebody who is embracing an Asian/Chinese/International focus where he seeks collaborating with Chinese artists. He writes from a perspective of a multicultural world where there’s confusion because of his views that the boundaries between the races are becoming more blurred while recognizing when blind-casting is a bad idea – such as 'Dancing at Lughnasa' (a historical play set in rural Ireland by Irish playwright Brian Friel) played by an Irish cast, Flower Drum Song played by Asians and August Wilson productions with Black Americans. His words often initiate national discussion (as in the case of many of his productions that include Yellow Face, M. Butterfly, Flower Drum Song, Face Value, etc.) regarding a healing vision of a world that could be where maybe the question that "we should take words like 'Asian' and 'American,' like 'race' and 'nation' --- mess them up so bad no one has any idea what they even mean any more." Maybe that is what Mr. Hwang wanted to do.
Director Leigh Silverman (who directed Lisa Kron’s “Well” on Broadway, who has been with the project since early workshops, integrates a maze of storylines, locations and characters within a bare set interjected with a series of interludes and recitatives within her spare approach. Silverman’s rapid pace (sometimes at a jumbled and breathless pace) throughout the entire first act resulted in some awkward staging and sluggish timing during the 135-minute piece that sometimes lend to some uneven acting – especially during the more serious second act. This was noted when the program’s constant shifting of personas and impersonations of various characters rapidly made the program loses its focus and creative momentum initiated during the first half.
With the entire cast remaining onstage and occupying black chairs on a bare wood plank stage (designed by David Korins) unless they're executing a costume change (provided by Myung Hee Cho), sometimes in character and sometimes not in character - the resulting physical staging is not always pleasing or expressive – especially in a spare set marked by a large mirror in where the audience can see a hazy reflection of itself. With these issues, one wonders what audiences would have seen had Hwang - who was partially inspired by Doug Wright's "I Am My Own Wife" - distilled it to the two characters, with perhaps a third actor playing everyone else. Would this direction or focus clarify the scenes that consists of quoting headlines, bylines and deadlines to identify its events characters that often prompted more questions that further confused what is fact or fantasy to the audience? Or was this direction was utilized to undercut the media's claim of objectivity?
Despite the above-mentioned observations and choices, Silverman provides ample opportunities for the actors to define their respective characters that the actors jump in and out of from TV celebrities and politicians to casting directors and other roles that allow the program fulfill its initial concept of finding personal identity. The large set pieces between DDH and his father (Tzi Ma) and Marcus Gee (Peter Scanavino) and the series of written news conferences serve as good contrasting theatrical vehicles to advance Mr. Hwang’s various storylines.
At the end of the day - David Henry Hwang is candid in illuminating personal contradictions, professional failures and an ever-evolving moral core that changes with whatever agenda he is pursuing - surprisingly so considering his status and respect. He utilizes "Yellow Face" to have the audience be a voyeur of his journey to suggests a fantasy of a color-blind/multicultural world where racial distinctions evaporate that provides opportunity for James Earl Jones can be cast as George Washington, Jonathan Pryce can be cast as a Vietnamese pimp, etc. Hwang states that some progress has been made when Denzel Washington can play Julius Caesar, James Earl Jones can star in "On Golden Pond," Brian Stokes Mitchell can star in "Taming of the Shrew" & "Man of La Mancha," and Jose Llana can play a character named "Chip Tolentino." However - as concluded by the play and in real life, this world does not exist - despite a recent Neil LaBute article promoting that it does.
Racial identity is tricky subject that is constantly on a slippery slope since there isn't a cohesive and commonly-agreed upon definition of an Asian Pacific American. When certain actors that includes a definitive Asian influence within their ethnic heritage such as Russell Wong, Rob Schneider, Kelly Hu and others are identified as Asian/Asian Pacific Americans - others actors such as Keanu Reeves, Dean Cain, etc. are not - generally. Does their "identification" hinges on their political views, community participation and/or their personal views? If the Asian/Asian Pacific American communities have these troubles, it makes it hard for the general public and entertainment executives to "know" the correct moves. Incidents such as the one that involved the program “Banzai” (a Fox mid-season replacement show what was championed by Wenda Fong/Quong Fung – Fox executives) that brought severe divisions between Karen Narasak/APA Media Coalition, SAG's APA Caucus (Aki Aleong/Erin Quill) and APA media watchdog coalitions (MANAA) cannot but unfortunately promote an environment of great uncertainty of how to provide "appropriate" and/or "politically-correct" portrayals. This confusion highlights the need and purpose of “Yellow Face” – a talented, successful and respected American playwright of Asian descent having the ability of obtaining wide exposure within the American general public to stimulate an intelligent dialogue on the issues of racism in all its ever-changing forms to advocate proactive actions of change.
Is the play perfect - no? Will it ever be perfect - no, since the answers needed/wanted/desired/dreamed will always be changing. However, Hwang's political and artistic capital has highlighted and challenged the general public/media's perceptions far beyond other well-intentioned, recent and similar projects (i.e. Jeff Adachi's film titled "The Slanted Screen") with the same goals of addressing racial injustices and stereotypes. In this marriage of drama and comedy/satire, fact and fiction, illusion and delusion, racial identity versus cultural identity, political correctness and advocacy, mockumentary and documentary - for "Better or Worse, Richer or Poorer" - David Henry Hwang has made a definitive commitment to addressing racism. Since Mr. Hwang has included the song "Free Your Mind" - could he be asking us to listen to the words that states "Free Your Mind / And the Rest Will Follow / Be Color-Blind / Don't Be So Shallow / Before You Read Me / You Gotta Learn How to See Me" and the world is listening.