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In Review: David Henry Hwang’s ‘Yellow Face’ blends fact and fiction to discuss Asian American identity

  • Stills from "Yellow Face" at the Beverly Hills Playhouse. Unless otherwise noted, all photos by Megumi Smisson.

  • Photo by Amiria Harper-Rose.

Location

Alhambra , CA United States

In our arts column – In Review – Victoria Moy reviews plays and other storytelling forms that deal with the immigrant experience. This week she reviews “Yellow Face,” by playwright David Henry Hwang, that tackles the very-real marginalization of Asians in the arts and American society, while challenging our investment in a narrative that may or may not be real. “Yellow Face” runs through this weekend at the Beverly Hills Playhouse.

Are stories most powerful when presented to audiences as real, fictional, or some of both?

Part autobiography and part fantasy, the play “Yellow Face” first premiered in 2007 and chronicles some of famed playwright David Henry Hwang’s real life experiences. This includes being on the front lines of the Asian American protest in 1990 against the casting of white actor Jonathan Pryce as a Eurasian pimp in “Miss Saigon” (Pryce used prosthetics and makeup to change the shape of his eyes). The play also deals with Hwang learning from the front page of The New York Times that his father, founder of the Far East National Bank in Chinatown, Los Angeles, was being investigated for the bank’s supposed involvement in illegal campaign contributions and funds for Chinese espionage. Hwang, for a few years, was a member of the bank’s board. As this was happening, Chinese American scientist Wen Ho Lee was also being accused of espionage. DHH, the protagonist in “Yellow Face” who is based on the real-life David Henry Hwang, points to these instances of Chinese Americans being unfairly targeted with little or no evidence and ruminates on race in America.

These two story points in the play are factual; there are other moments based on real life incidents that seem factual, until we’re told they’re not. In the play, DHH is casting for an Asian actor to perform whiteface for his Broadway play “Face Value” (also something that happened in Hwang’s real life). DHH ends up casting Marcus G. Dahlman, who looks white, but who DHH assumes is partially Asian. When DHH learns Marcus G. Dahlman is actually just white, DHH tries to hide that fact (to protect himself from being accused of whitewashing) by calling Marcus G. Dahlman “Marcus Gee,” stretching the truth and telling white lies at public events about how Marcus is a little Siberian, which is essentially Asian. Over time, Marcus ends up nabbing top Asian male lead roles, including the king in “The King and I” and becomes one of the Asian community’s loudest and most fervent spokespeople. Marcus eventually becomes more popular than DHH within the Asian American community and wins the heart of DHH’s ex.

“Yellow Face” is now being performed by a set of very capable and funny actors under the deft direction of Robert Zimmerman at the Beverly Hills Playhouse. The production originated at the Beverly Hills Playhouse of San Francisco, garnering nominations from the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle for “Best San Francisco Play,” “ Bay Area Play” and winning “Best Supporting Actor” for Roman Moretti. Five of the seven cast members moved to Los Angeles which led to this latest remounting.

Jeffrey Sun plays a convincing DHH, making him relatable even when he’s fickle and opportunistic in choosing to play the race card. The rest of the cast members play a slew of roles at times crossing ethnic and gender lines that are not their own — including real-life politicians, actors and critics (in doing so, the playwright shows us he’s more than okay with whitewashing or rainbow-washing). Dennis Nollette performs a hilariously realistic Senator John McCain. Lisagaye Tomlinson, who is Jamaican-born, through gestures and a very exact accent–does a surprisingly close rendition of a Chinese woman on the board of DHH’s father’s bank. Roman Moretti plays a wonderfully hammy Marcus. Jennifer Vo Le is captivating as the passionate ex of DHH and new girlfriend of Marcus. Alfonso Faustino, with great stage presence, morphs from DHH’s dad HYH to actor B.D. Wong and all other Asian male actors vying for Asian male parts. John Pendergast is commanding in his portrayal of a chilling, creepy New York Times reporter. In short–the acting is top–notch.

We’re transfixed by DHH and Marcus’ story, swept in a heartwrenching whirlwind, until we are told near the end of the play that it is actually all made up. What we’ve lived through as an audience was merely an intellectual debate for DHH/David Henry Hwang, when while it was happening, we thought there were actual stakes involved. The excitement one has as an audience member for all the twists and turns completely deflates, and you wonder what’s the point of being told a story to be reminded that it’s fake (with some real parts).

This flaw in “Yellow Face” could have been averted if the author chose to call the play fiction and allow the audience to guess for themselves what’s real or not, and revel in their suspended disbelief. Or, Hwang could have stuck to just autobiography, since just the factual elements themselves are already quite outrageous and enough to make a strong play if he didn’t overshadow these parts with yet even more outrageous fictional material–all while having a character explicitly call it out as a fabrication. Even so, the play does push the audience to consider finer points of nuance in the argument of yellowface and whitewashing versus artistic license, which often get lost in today’s highly charged political debates.

Overall, this thought-provoking play is worth seeing even if there are a few moments of letdown in the storytelling; the acting in this production is something to marvel at, and the questions the play raises remain pertinent.

“Yellow Face”
Written by David Henry Hwang
Directed by Robert Zimmerman

Starring Jeffrey Sun, Roman Moretti, Alfonso Faustino, Jennifer Vo Le, Lisagaye Tomlinson, Dennis Nollette, John Pendergast

Produced by Firescape Theatre and Yolk Productions

Performances Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.

Runs through Sept. 26, 2018 at the Beverly Hills Playhouse; 254 So. Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90211. Tickets here.

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