How Can a Chinese American Writer Show His Heart?
by Daniel Joseph Lilly
David Henry Hwang’s “Yellow Face” (2007), a topical, funny, and thoughtful Obie award-winning play, features the “playwright” as the narrator and main character. The script is touching, and the pedigree of the Beverly Hills Playhouse as an acting school shines through in the talented and energetic cast.
Director Jeffrey Sun delivers a sympathetic performance in “Yellow Face” as DHH, the writer. “Yellow Face” tells the backstage, semi-fictional story of “Face Value,” an earlier failed play by Hwang. The play highlights the ambiguity of racial identities, both Asian and Caucasian, that arise as diversity becomes more and more complex. Sun unveils the stereotypes and difficulties faced by Chinese-Americans, from actors and playwrights to bankers and scientists.
“Yellow Face,” actually a docu-drama, requires a light, maneuverable cast, and Sun’s cast delivers with passion and humor. Sun portrays DHH as thoughtful and humorous as he guides the narrative through casting for 1993’s “Face Value,” its failure, and the conflicts in his personal and artistic life.
Hwang, the playwright, presents headlines, snippets and quotations to highlight the Chinese identity rhetoric of the time. Sitting at the back of the stage in a row, the cast members delightfully embody the sources of opposing messages, often mimicking well-known personalities. Each actor springs into action smoothly and suddenly, portraying a wonderful mélange of characters.
The play orbits around the life of the lead of “Face Value,” Marcus G. Dahlman, played by a commanding Roman Moretti. Moretti’s portrayal of Dahlman, later Marcus Gee, is vibrant and engaging. DHH unwittingly, or maybe purposely, casts Dahlman in an Asian role, in order to support Asian actors’ right to work, in a frenzy of the 90s. DHH rebrands him as Marcus Gee to cover up his own original mistake, a move which enables Gee to embark on a pseudo-Asian acting career. Gee becomes a big success by presenting himself as Asian when he is not. Moretti and Sun take full advantage of this tense and hilarious premise.
DHH’s father, HYH, portrayed wittily (among many other characters) by Alfonso Faustino serves early on as a great source of humor and a deeper connection to DHH. The relationship between immigrant, banker-father and first-generation artist-son threads its way through the show. Faustino’s cool and pensive founder of Far East National Bank contrasts with the usual Hollywood stereotype of the silly, bombastic Chinese American businessman. Indeed, Hwang’s own deconstruction of stereotypes provides the theme for his work, such as his Pulitzer Prize winning play “M. Butterfly,” later a movie starring Jeremy Irons.
John Pendergast, the narrator and then, a slick and troubling reporter in the second act, plays his role with groan-worthy conviction. He represents the white establishment or worse, extrapolating theories that HYH is a spy for the Chinese government, abetted by his son. The strength of his performance evokes disgust, or even shame, about the backward view of racial equality in the U.S.
The show serves as a catalyst for inquiry into racial identity, and who should be allowed to play racially sensitive roles. The topic is as fresh as it was when “Yellow Face” premiered. The American movie industry has faced intense scrutiny when casting racially sensitive roles. In addition, the burgeoning film industry in China has just begun to capitalize on A-list Caucasian actors from the U.S.
“Yellow Face” offers enchantment and plenty of laughter, not without moments of surprising gravity. One leaves the theater feeling moved and astoundingly entertained.
“Yellow Face” by David Henry Hwang, directed by Jeffrey Sun, plays at Firescape Theater, 414 Mason St., San Francisco, through Sunday, October 16, 2016. Info: bhpsanfrancisco.com
DHH: Jeffrey Sun. Marcus G. Dahlman: Roman Moretti. Announcer, NWOAOC: John Pendergast. Leah Anne Cho, others: Jennifer Vo Le / Anne Luna. HYH, others: Alfonso Faustino. Stuart Ostrow, Rocco Palmieri, others: Duncan Heath / Ben Coleman. Jane Krakowski, Miles Newman, others: Krista Muir / Joanna Cretella.