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Yellow Face

"There’s a dangerous, unspoken idea that a universal story is a white one"

An erratic ride through the uncontrollable nature of identity, David Henry Hwang's 2007 play Yellow Face is more relevant than ever, argues Jasper Lee-Lindsay.

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Yellow Face: More than a Diversity Pick

Date: 7 Apr 2021

Let there be no mistake about this: Yellow Face is an amazing play.

A semi-biographical mockumentary, filled with big personalities, running from the backstages of Broadway to the classified files of the CIA.

Written by the Tony-winning, three-time-Pulitzer-Prize-finalist playwright and Disney’s Tarzan-librettist David Henry Hwang.

An erratic ride through the very uncontrollable nature of identity, Yellow Face and is more relevant today than it was when it was written (2007).

But I fear that because Hwang is of Asian heritage, it will be shrugged off as just “an Asian play.”

There’s a dangerous, unspoken idea that a universal story is a white one.

That’s why there’s an overabundance of plays, movies, TV shows where PoC characters are only there to serve the needs of the white lead.

That’s why Minari is an “Asian” movie, Moonlight is a “Black” movie, and Ladybird is a “comedy by Greta Gerwig.” (No offence to Greta or Ladybird.)

When the white perspective lives in the spotlight for decades, it sets up a subconscious understanding: other cultures exist for white people.

It’s reinforced by how we reward the things we watch.

This year, the Golden Globes decided to relegate Minari only to the Foreign Language category, despite being an American production. Last year, The Farewell managed a win for Awkwafina at the Globes (in comedy?), but was completely shunned by the Oscars.

Parasite found huge Oscars success, but could this mean audiences are more comfortable with foreign Asian stories than they are with those closer to home?

And does Parasite’s lack of acting nominations suggest that the films we embrace are ones that somehow overcome the Asian faces on screen?

Let’s bring it back to the theatre scene.

Classics that are continuously remounted are by white male playwrights. The majority of plays that are imported from Broadway or the West End are by white people, from a white perspective. Programmed works about People of Colour are talked about as “the diversity pick”, seen as a tourist stop in the middle of a more traditionally arranged season. This tokenistic treatment is discouraging, but it’s hard to speak out about it when we feel lucky to have anything at all.

We can’t ignore the signs of progress, though. Steven Yuen and Riz Ahmed are the first Asian-American and Muslim actors, respectively, to be nominated for an Oscar in the Lead Actor category. The first time two Asians leads have been nominated in the same year, as well.

In our Sydney scene, we have many works that centre PoC perspectives coming this year, such as Miss Peony, Bubble Gum Dreams, seven methods of killing kylie jenner, the Storylines season at KXT, and more.

Around the world, there are quotas and initiatives to promote PoC voices in various aspects of the arts, bringing us a more diverse range of perspectives.

I’ll say it again: Yellow Face is brilliant.

Not just as an “Asian play” or a “diversity pick”, but as a play that speaks to and involves everyone in our society. It’s time we recognise that opportunity in every story, the opportunity to learn from another point of view we see as different, instead of seeing that difference as a barrier.

The more space and respect we give to underrepresented experiences, the closer we will get to sharing a truly universal story.

Yellow Face plays at Kings Cross Theatre, April 23 – May 8.

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