There’s room to speculate that a play addressing the news headlines and Broadway scandals of the Clinton era might feel a little off the boil in terms of topicality. Its issues a little stewed.
Not so Yellow Face. David Henry Hwang’s rueful 2007 comedy runs hot against today’s backdrop of rising sinophobia, assertive expressions of all forms of identity and superpower realpolitik.
Hwang’s play weaves several strands, most of them documentary, some fictional. One draws on Hwang’s leading involvement in the 1990 protests against the “yellow face” casting of British actor Jonathan Pryce in an Asian role in Broadway production of Miss Saigon.
Another strand, which emerges later in the play, winds in the true story of his father’s involvement in a series of money transfers between China and the United States that US authorities feared were part of attempts by the Chinese Communist Party to wield influence in political circles.
The main storyline is inspired by the high profile flop of an earlier Hwang play, 1993’s Face Value, which closed before its official opening after just eight public performances. Hwang’s apparent blindness to the casting a white actor in an Asian role doesn’t just reveal a streak of hypocrisy in the playwright; it leads to that actor becoming successful on false claims of Asian heritage – a turn of events that gives Yellow Face its satirical bite and farcical energy.
Tasnim Hossain directs an economical, quick-fire staging by new-minted indie company Dinosaurus Productions. The seven-member cast creates its own scenes using a set of wooden boxes. Transitions are swift and momentum is sustained across two acts of an hour or so each.
Performances are excellent across the board. Shan-Ree Tan showcases his range and finesse in the central role of ‘DHH’, one that requires him to be admirable and craven, upstanding and cowardly, commentator and participant.
He has excellent support from Jonathan Chan (Hwang’s father, an immigrant who becomes a leading banker) and Adam Marks as the appealingly goofy Marcus, the white actor whose embrace of Asian identity proves unstoppable to the point where he becomes a community spokesperson and the King of Siam.
Helen Kim, Kian Pitman, Whitney Richards and Idam Sondhi provide the production with a entertaining pop-up gallery of figures including producer Cameron Mackintosh, former New York Times critic Frank Rich and actor Jane Krakowski, and a high-profile journalist whose name is redacted on legal advice. Chan is very effective in the second act as Wen Ho Lee, the man accused of selling nuclear secrets to China in the late 1990s.
An entertaining dance with issues of identity, negative stereotyping and “the artistic freedom thing”, the questions raised in Yellow Face go well beyond the realms of the entertainment industry. Right now, this play feels like it’s dancing with some very big issues indeed.