Mark Taper Forum
I remember sitting in the audience at the Mark Taper Forum some 15 years ago experiencing the momentous four-night cycle which introduced Tony Kushner’s Angels in America to the world and realizing I was surely present for the first performance of a milestone event in contemporary theatre. David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face, now also world premiering at the Taper before its Broadway debut next fall, quickly gave me the same goose-bumpy feeling of being privy to history in the making.
Yellow Face is Hwang’s best play since M. Butterfly and surely his most personal. It even features the playwright himself as the pivotal character in the story (played brilliantly by the multi-talented Hoon Lee), who at one point in his own script cavalierly dismisses that exact same notion by stating: “When writing an autobiographical play, no one uses their real name.” So much for art imitating life in the rule-breaking theatrical world so imaginatively created here—but then, the courageously exposed playwright also features a character spouting the real-life words of a critic who referred to him in print as a “white racist asshole.”
Yellow Face is a fascinating blend of truth and fiction, a luxury which allows Hwang to unblinkingly examine the thorny issues of race and identity not only in our modern society but more specifically in the arts—a most important place to explore, as the older I get, the more I’m assured the arts are the ultimate savior of humanity from the political and moral tyrannies of the times.
The play begins soon after the success of M. Butterfly, a period when Hwang’s career had its share of ups and downs, most of which he chronicles with great honesty and strikingly self-deprecating humor. Hwang was one of the most vocal opponents to the casting of Caucasian Brit Jonathan Pryce in an Asian leading role when Miss Saigon came over the seas from London, taking on an advocatory spokesperson role which eventually put him in a the middle of a “tempest in an oriental teapot.” Hwang repeatedly reminded the media during the battle that Asians have even been “denied the right to play ourselves,” sighting Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and David Carradine in Kung Fu.
It was bad enough when Actors Equity Association reversed its Hwang-fueled decision to sanction the producers of Saigon and let Pryce open on Broadway after all, but several years later, Hwang faced another crisis generated by the same issue in reverse. Ironically, this time it was a self-inflicted wound and Hwang was the guy on the hotseat rather than Cameron Macintosh, the writer facing a dilemma spawned by a kind of artistic Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy imposed by Equity regarding racial queries at auditions.
It seems Hwang wrote a new play called Face Value, which stemmed from the writer’s own experiences while mired in the Saigon brouhaha. After looking desperately for an Asian actor who could play the leading character forced into “yellow face” for a role, Hwang jumps at the chance to employ a young man named Marcus (Peter Scanavino), who has all the right stuff to play the role except, well, he doesn’t look all that Asian. Hwang fights to cast him anyway, asking his producing partners if their own attitude against Marcus’ hire is somewhat racist in itself.
Despite out-of-town notices referring to Face Value as M. Turkey, rehearsals go swimmingly and the show is ready to open in New York when Hwang is informed that Marcus is, in fact, as white as Matthew McConaughey, giving a whole new meaning to the term “identity crisis.”
Although Yellow Face deals with both the humorous and the political aspects of Hwang’s predicament, it goes far deeper than mining just for laughs. The separate storyline of Hwang’s successful San Gabriel Valley banker father (Tzi Ma) being investigated by the state department for laundering money to China suggests a kind of accepted governmental racism that transcends the humor here, particularly when senators and others leap to join in the McCarthy-like quest to find Chinese-Americans’ motives suspect—in 1999!
Despite the finely tuned work of Lee, well matched by Scanavino as his annoyingly non-Asian nemesis (although the latter actor starts too high and loud, he quickly settles into a memorable performance), the cast of Yellow Face in general still seemed a bit rough on opening night. They undoubtedly have settled into fine ensemble work since that traditionally tense first performance facing an audience peppered with critics and celebs, and if not, it’s oddly almost not that important anyway, as the play unfolds in a kind of story theatre format which forgives a great deal of questionable theatrical choices.
Tony Torn is a major exception to any scattered unevenness, although it takes a long while into the play to reveal the true nature of his participation. Through most of the action, he’s relegated to his billed status as “The Announcer,” but somewhere in Act Two the actor morphs into an unnamed and ruthlessly scary New York Times reporter trying his best to get to Hwang’s father through him. Here Torn makes up for lost time, turning from a mild-mannered Harry Von Zell to Peter Lorre almost instantaneously.
Director Leigh Silverman’s seamless staging and David Korins’ cleverly austere yet sweepingly grand set design also easily offset any bumpy patches remaining in Hwang’s remarkably moving tale and, by the time Lee as Hwang wonders aloud if anything that’s just unfolded really happened or not, we’re hooked anyway, which makes the eventual reality-jarring twist at the conclusion of Yellow Face that much more compelling. What is and isn’t real here eventually matters little, especially when a play this quick-witted, this candid, this radiantly conceived can still bring a majority of audience members first to tears and than to their feet by the beautifully written final scene.
Yellow Face plays through July 1 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Av. in the LA Music Center; for tickets, call 213.628.2772