Yellow Face

by John Stoltenberg

(This review was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

If there was an open casting call for the role of you, who should get the part and who shouldn’t? Must the actor be descended from a gene pool that arose in the same area on the globe that yours did? Or could the actor’s family tree be traced back to some other forest on the planet? Theater J’s nifty new production of David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face turns those what-if-y questions into a zippy-fun and witty-smart comedic pièce de résistance.

How essential is “race” for theatrical representation? The delight of Yellow Face is how it toys with that question and invites us to play along. With a payoff that’s a pip.

Even before this play begins, we get an arresting visual display of its insightful theme. Projected onto the back wall of the set,  a monumental assemblage of filing cabinet drawers, are yellow-tinged monochrome photos of assorted faces—some are in the show’s cast and creative team, some are personages to be referenced in the script, some are famous performers who have played “Asian” whether or not genealogically classifiable as such. As each visage appears in this looping jumbo-screen slideshow, a projection on a small whiteboard identifies the human being by name. Yes, you read that right: All their identities are projected onto “white.”

The extraordinary way that stagecraft artistry serves this play has only just begun.

The precipitating story in Yellow Face has been told extensively in advance publicity. A lot of it is fact-based (the part that’s not is the big reveal):  The renowned Chinese-American playwright David Henry Hwang got miffed when a European Brit (Jonathan Pryce) was cast to play the pimp in the musical Miss Saigon, a character written as half-Vietnamese and half-French. Hwang’s protest missive to The New York Times—demanding that this lead role be cast more gene-pool relevantlyset off a pissing match with producer Cameron Mackintosh and sundry pundits.  Actors’ Equity joined the tiff on Hwang’s side, Mackintosh canceled the show in spite, the union caved, the musical went on to be a megahit—and Hwang was pitched into a cultural-identity-specific tizzy.

Hwang did not just get mad then get even; he devised an evening’s entertainment. He wrote himself into the script and featured in his diverse character list members of his own family plus a host of boldface names who played a part in the real-life story (Mackintosh and more). He set up scenes like serial sketch comedies. He created quirky characters and running gags. He imagined a fiction more illuminating than fact. And the two ensuing acts turn the lemon of Hwang’s lament into fizzy lemonade.

Director Natsu Onoda Power has staged Yellow Face with amazing and amusing grace. At first I was taken aback by her stylistic choices; they seemed too lighthearted for a play I had been led to assume would be dealing darkly with Trenchant Themes of Great Cultural Import About Identity, Its Determinants, and Its Discontents. But as I quickly figured out: She was right and I’d been wrong. Yellow Face definitely has big ideas. But Yellow Face has fun.

We’re in on the joke already as soon as we meet the versatile members of a virtuoso ensemble who play the various characters (I counted more than 50) and themselves are multi-everything. So credibly does Stan Kang play the author’s alter ego (named DHH) that by the second act he had me believing he had written the play. Rafael Untalan plays DHH’s comic foil, Marcus G. Dahlman, with sturdy bravado.  And one by one the other six switch nimbly and hilariously into persona after persona: Tonya Beckman (as Jane Krakowski, Frank Rich, et al.), Mark Hairston (Dick Cavett, Yellowgurl8…), Brandon McCoy (Ed Koch, a chorus girl in The King and I…), Sue Jin Song (Lily Tomlin, DHH’s mom…), Jacob Yeh (BD Wong, Joe Papp…), and Al Twanmo (Bernard Jacobs, DHH’s dad…). As these players’ own received and perceived boundaries of race and gender get tossed to the wings, the show’s smart send-up of essentialism soars at center stage.

The aforementioned scenic design by Luciana Stecconi is downright brilliant: a massive array of filing cabinets some drawers of which burst open as if chockful of résumés in some master casting agent’s office. Deb Sivigny’s costumes depict splendidly each role that each actor dons (the backstage changing area must be mayhem). The still projections at the beginning become in Jared Mezzocchi’s eye-dazzling design a vivid storytelling undercurrent. The ongoing animation of Dan Covey’s inspired lighting design comes to seem as alive as the actors onstage. And the lively uncredited choreography that closes Act One (a whole-cast round-robin polka to the tune of “Shall We Dance?”) makes one want an invitation too.

The contretemps that prompted this play continues in the real world in real time. Just recently in Chicago, Mary Zimmerman’s production of The Jungle Book came under criticism for what some said was racially insensitive casting. American theater is still struggling to figure out how to catch up with shifting concepts of identity inside our shared and disparate histories—all of which, no question, are steeped in race and gender animus.  But theater can also take the lead and point the way. Theater can reveal potentialities of selfhood beyond societal scripts. Theater can show us what we might conceivably mean when we each say “I” that transcends any typecasting.

Yellow Face does just that. Yellow Face helps rewrite the identity story. Yellow Face helps recast us. It’s for our “I’s”—and it’s not for our eyes only.

If you see it (and you should), you’ll see.

Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission.