Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Los Angeles

Yellow Face

Tzi Ma and Hoon Lee
You might think David Henry Hwang's world-premiere play Yellow Face is going to be a serious discussion about race in the theatre - a play by an outspoken Asian-American playwright about the sometimes sensitive issue of "non-traditional casting." You'd be wrong. Yellow Face is, in fact, a laugh-out-loud funny farce in which the central character is playwright Hwang himself - or, at least, a Tony Award-winning playwright who wrote M. Butterfly, found himself leading the charge against the casting of non-Asian Jonathan Pryce in the role of a Eurasian in Miss Saigon, and happens to be named David Henry Hwang. But the character of Hwang isn't exactly the playwright Hwang, because Yellow Face plays fast and loose with fact and fiction.

The play really starts moving after the Miss Saigon controversy has died down, and Hwang (the character) is casting his next play, a "comedy of mistaken racial identity" called Face Value. Hwang is having difficulty casting the leading Asian male role until his casting director stumbles upon Marcus, an actor who is perfect for the role ... except ... well ... it turns out that he's white.

What is absolutely necessary for Yellow Face to work is a plausible explanation for how a playwright, a casting director and a producer can all mistakenly cast a white guy in an Asian role - and Hwang (the playwright) provides it. Sure, the Face Value team has their doubts, and they know that Marcus isn't "100 percent" Asian, but anti-discrimination laws prevent them from flat-out asking the guy. And his answers to all of their questions are beautifully ambiguous - not to mention dead funny for the audience who is in on the joke. But mostly, it is Hwang (the character) who is at fault for the mistake. When his (white) producer points out that Marcus "doesn't have any Asian features," Hwang pointedly asks him exactly what are Asian features, leaving the producer trying to stammer his way out of his politically incorrect statement and leaving unanswered the suggestion that Hwang may be making a casting blunder that would completely undermine everything he'd been trying to say during the Miss Saigon debate.

And when Hwang (the character) eventually discovers that Marcus is, in fact, not Asian at all, the play reaches a fever pitch, as Hwang maniacally tries to cover his mistake by helping Marcus "pass" as Asian. By the time Hwang is intensely saying ridiculous things like, "Jews are both waves and particles," you're watching a flat-out comedy in which the spokesman for casting Asians in Asian roles has descended into comic insanity, as he desperately tries to salvage a situation in which he's done the very thing he railed against.

Hoon Lee plays Hwang as an intelligent, well-meaning, decent guy - an instantly likeable protagonist (if only because we sympathize with his frustration when his dad asks him to finagle tickets to Miss Saigon). Peter Scanavino is Marcus - the also well-meaning, decent guy who didn't set out to lie about his race, but is willing to go the Soul Man route when he's offered the leading role in a Broadway-bound play. Early on, Scanavino overplays Marcus's nervousness. Indeed, if there's an overall problem with the performances in Yellow Face, it's that they err on the side of "too big": ensemble members Julienne Hanzelka Kim and Kathryn A. Layng are offenders; Kim, in particular, overplays righteous indignation beyond all plausibility. Only Tzi Ma obtains huge laughs by going big. From his flamboyant entrance on the line, "Hi David, it's B.D." on through, he perfectly nails the comedy in all of the varied roles he plays.

Nearly every actor in Yellow Face plays multiple roles - many of them real people. The play often takes on a documentary style, in which an announcer identifies a speaker (Cameron Mackintosh, for instance), and a member of the company briefly takes on that role and delivers a quote or two from the person named. That this style, which we associate with plays based purely on historical fact, is used in a play that is, in fact, part fiction, adds to the fun of the piece.

It isn't all fun and games, though. In the second act, Yellow Face turns to deeper and more serious matters (although it still saves room for some of its biggest laughs). When Marcus starts identifying himself as Asian - not just onstage, but as a member of, and advocate for, the Asian-American community - the play raises real questions of racial identity. It also weaves in the plots of Wen Ho Lee's arrest for espionage, and an investigation into Hwang's father for financial improprieties at his bank. When real issues of racial discrimination take center stage, Yellow Face, like many good comedies before it, takes its audience into darker territory.

The one place where Yellow Face falters is at the very end of the show, when Hwang (the character) breaks the fourth wall and very nearly directly tells the audience the purpose of the play and the message we should take away from it. To be sure, without that ending, it is likely that many in the audience would not "get" what Hwang (the playwright) is trying to say. But the play itself should be well crafted enough to convey its message without the playwright having to spoon-feed it to the audience. One feels as though Yellow Face might have gotten away from Hwang and become a different play than the one he originally set out to write. Perhaps he should just let it be the show that it is, rather than trying to force his message back onto it, with an artificial speech at the end.

Yellow Face runs at the Mark Taper Forum through July 1, 2007. For information see

Center Theatre Group - Michael Ritchie, Artistic Director; Charles Dillingham, Managing Director; Gordon Davidson, Founding Artistic Director - and The Public Theater in association with East West Players present Yellow Face by David Henry Hwang. Set Design David Korins; Costume Design Myung Hee Cho; Lighting Design Donald Holder; Sound Design Darron L. West; Casting Jordan Thaler/Heidi Griffiths and Erika Sellin, CSA; Production Stage Manager James T. McDermott; Stage Manager Elizabeth Atkinson. Directed by Leigh Silverman.

Julienne Hanzelka Kim - Leah and others
Kathryn A. Layng - Jane, Miles and others
Hoon Lee - DHH
Tzi Ma - HYH and others
Lucas Caleb Rooney - Stuart, Rocco and others
Peter Scanavino - Marcus
Tony Torn - The Announcer

Photo by Craig Schwarz

- Sharon Perlmutter

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