Regional Reviews: Las Vegas
Also see Mary's review of The Secret Garden
The Obie-winning comedy, which premiered at New York's Public Theater in 2007, was inspired by the controversial casting of caucasian British actor Jonathan Pryce in the role of the Eurasian engineer in the 1991 Broadway production of Miss Saigon. Hwang, whose M Butterfly won the 1988 Tony award for Best Play, describes Yellow Face as an "unreliable memoir," weaving fact and fiction together. A running theme is the concept of "face," whose various meanings include racial identity and personal integrityboth of which become hilariously muddled as the evening's events play out.
The play opens as the main character, an Asian playwright with the initials DHH, leads the Asian theatre community in a protest against Pryce's casting, citing the importance of casting Asian roles with Asian actors. Although Actor's Equity eventually defers to the play's producers, the community does not back down from its vocal opposition to the entertainment industry's offensive tradition of "yellow face" casting (an analogy to "black face" casting, in which white actors historically darkened their faces to play black characters). When casting his new play, therefore, DHH is determined to stick to his principles.
Trouble ensues, however, when DHH accidentally casts a white actor, Michael, as the Asian lead, mistakenly believing him to be of mixed race. Blinded by his activist zeal, DHH accuses his own production team of racism when they gently point out that Michael doesn't "look Asian." Thrown into panic when the evidence becomes undeniable, DHH attempts a cover-up in order to protect his reputation. When the enthusiastic Michael embraces his adopted ethnicity, however, the cover-up has unexpected consequences.
This satirical storyline is played out against the historical backdrop of the federal government's targeting of Chinese Americans suspected of illegal activities on behalf of the Chinese government during the 1990sincluding the Senate's investigation of Chinese-American bankers (including Hwang's own father) suspected of facilitating illegal campaign contributions by the Chinese government, and the imprisonment of Chinese-American scientist Wen Ho Lee, who was held in solitary confinement for nine months on the unproven charge of stealing nuclear secrets. In the fictional counterpart to these real events, persecution by government investigators threatens the American dream of DHH's father, who emigrated from Shanghai to the U.S. after the film It's a Wonderful Life inspired his childhood dream to become the Chinese-American Jimmy Stewart.
Proving that truth is stranger than fiction, some of the play's biggest laughs come from authentic quotes uttered by the Chinese-bashing Senators (mostly white southern Republicans) who led the banking investigation (which, after much sturm und drang, ultimately went nowhere). Their idiocy may be mind-boggling, but the historical tradition is sound: from the Salem witch trials to the internment of Japanese Americans to McCarthyism to racial profiling and the Patriot Act, fabricating enemies at home can do wonders for a political career.
The play's exploration of dishonesty goes beyond matters of ethnicity and politics. DHH's cover-up, it turns out, is not his only deceit. During an Asian-American hunger strike in college, he confesses, he and his fellow students "fasted in shifts." He falsely promises a job to an actor in exchange for assisting in the cover-up. Like Hwang himself, DHH lies to Cameron Mackintosh (producer of Miss Saigon) when he denies leaking an inflammatory letter to the press.
The production's own casting mixes ethnic authenticity with color-blind casting. As DHH and Michael, Kris Mayeshiro and Shane Cullum look distinctly Asian and white, respectively. However, several in the multi-racial ensemble take turns playing against race, most notably with white and African-American performers taking turns in "yellow face" (without make-up, of course). The production does with ethnicity exactly what DHH accuses Michael of doing"mixing everything up."
In the evening's most deftly executed scene, Charlene Moskal subtly transforms from milquetoast to barracuda as a reporter who uses her own false face to manipulate DHH into saying all the wrong things in order to support her preconceived story that Chinese Americans have divided loyalties.
Director Rommel Pacson's in-the-round staging works beautifully; as befits his choreographic training, he keeps the actors moving fluidly so that each audience member has a front-row experience. Between (and sometimes during) scenes, the actors sit among the audience in the tiny black box theatre.
Mayeshiro's performance as DHH is understated and sublime; one forgets that he is an actor at all. Shane Cullum's Michael is convincingly sincere as he turns his lucky break into a personal mission in which he "out-Asians" DHH. In the ensemble, Vanecia Iris-Rose shines in several very different roles (including Jane Krakowski), bringing intelligence and stunning stage presence to each interpretation.
At a time when a caucasian NAACP official masquerades as African American, and a university theater group casts a white actor as Martin Luther King, Hwang's confessional musings on ethnicity, honesty, and racial marginalization remain every bit as relevant as they are entertaining.
Yellow Face continues through November 22, 2015, with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and Sundays at 2 p.m., at the Las Vegas Little Theatre's Fischer Black Box, 3920 Schiff Drive, Las Vegas, Nevada 89103. Tickets ($10-15) are available at lvlt.org.
Up next at Las Vegas Little Theatre: Love, Sex and the IRS (Mainstage, Dec. 4-20) and Tribes (Fischer Black Box, Jan. 8-24).
Costumes by Jennifer McKee; Lighting by Kendra Harris; and Set Design by Chris Davies.