December 15, 2007

The Many Faces of "Yellow Face"

The first thing I wanted to know when my husband K and I walked out of The Public Theater after seeing David Henry Hwang's new play Yellow Face was: what is the New York Times going to say about this? People in the theater world are always asking some variation of that question because the paper wields so much influence over what theatergoers choose to see and which plays get to run. But I had a very specific reason for my question: the New York Times plays a role in Yellow Face and it's not a pretty one.

The Times, as it turns out, gave the show a circumspect review (click here to read it). But K and I loved Yellow Face. I've been a Hwang fan since I saw his second play, The Dance and the Railroad at The Public back in 1981; it told the story of two Chinese laborers working on the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s and it was the first time I'd seen Asian-Americans portrayed on a stage as real people. Seven years later, Hwang hit the Broadway big time with M. Butterfly, his wry deconstruction of the "Madama Butterfly" story as refracted through the real-life spy case of a French diplomat and the Chinese transvestite who was his lover. That play won three Tonys, including Best Play, three Drama Desk awards and a Pulitzer Prize nomination; it also ran for almost two years. Hwang produced a couple of more plays after that but he's spent most of the last decade working on books for musicals ranging from an update of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song to Disney's adaptations of Aida and Tarzan. So one of the reasons I'm so excited about Yellow Face is that it marks Hwang's return to the subject of racial identity that he does so well and that very few other playwrights do at all.

Yellow Face, which has been extended through Dec. 30, is the somewhat autobiographical story of Hwang's life since the success of M. Butterfly. It starts with the protests he helped lead when the white Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce was cast as the Eurasian pimp in the musical Miss Saigon, a role that Asian-American actors felt should have gone to one of them. It ends with the government investigations of Wen Ho Lee, the Taiwan-born nuclear scientist who was erroneously charged with spying for China, and Hwang's father Henry Y. Hwang, an immigrant who founded the first Asian-American-owned bank in the U.S. and who was unjustly accused of laundering money for his native China. (This is where the New York Times, which aggressively covered both cases, enters the action.) Along the way, Hwang tells the tale of what happened to his infamous flop Face Value and the story of his mentorship of a white actor he mistakenly believed to be Asian.

That's a lot of plot. But Wong handles it deftly, with enough humor to keep you amused during the show (people who know Broadway will particularly enjoy his portrayals of producers Stuart Ostrow and Cameron Mackintosh and actors B.D. Wong and Jane Krakowski) and with enough perspicacity to keep you thinking about it for days afterwards (some critics complained about the serious turn in the play's second half; but it's the serious stuff that's the point). The show is also aided by Leigh Silverman's sharp direction and an agile seven-member cast headed by Hoon Lee, who plays Hwang, Noah Bean as the ambiguous actor, and Francis Jue, who portrays multiple characters including Hwang's father.

After the show, K and I walked to Five Points, our favorite downtown restaurant and a place that was almost a second home for us when K, a pit musician played in the orchestra for The Public's production of Elaine Stritch At Liberty. Our friend Lee, the nicest maitre d in New York, was off but they gave us a nice table and as we sipped two of their specialty cocktails—a pear mimosa for me, something with gin for K—I recalled how I'd once met Hwang during the Miss Saigon controversy and how even in the midst of it, he was ambivalent about taking on the role of spokesman for his race. Yellow Face is simultaneously his declaration of independence and a potent demonstration of what makes his voice so important.

[Update: Yellow Face has been extended through Jan. 13]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I left yellow face wondering where the Fairy Tale was? Where is the SUB conscious? Issues Plays are civic lessons and that's why i enjoyed The Homecoming and August: Osage County so much. Racial Identity isn't my idea of Drama.