Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
AIRDATE: OCTOBER 22, 2010
You’ve heard of blackface. And maybe even whiteface. Welcome to the world of Yellow Face, wherein a white person tries to act like, or is made up to look like, an Asian. “Yellow Face” is also the title of the more-than-semi-autobiographical play by Tony Award-winner David Henry Hwang, the first Asian American writer to have play on Broadway. His work often confronts confusions and crises of identity.
His obsession with the issue of “Yellow Face” began in 1990. That was the year Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce was cast as the lead, a Eurasian pimp, in the mega-musical, “Miss Saigon.” He performed the role in yellowface makeup in London and was scheduled to do the same in New York . Hwang led the charge, demanding that Equity, the actors’ union, block Pryce’s performance, in the name of affirmative action and authenticity. The Asians lost the battle.
There were other, more heinous anti-Asian acts in the 1990s, including a Campaign Finance Controversy, which incriminated Hwang’s father, and the Wen Ho Lee affair, when a Taiwanese American scientist at Los Alamos Lab was accused of espionage — later exonerated and apologized to.
In this fertile cultural ground, Hwang took his stand, but also made his own massive racial faux pas, mistakenly casting a white actor in his own Asian-themed show, which flopped in New York. The actor, who goes on to glory as an Asian activist, is actually fictional. We’re told as much at the end of this play. But in a narcissistic coup de théâtre , Hwang has chosen to hang out – and exaggerate — some of his own dirty laundry and cultural ambiguity.
Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company, which loves to give voice to unheard populations, has really sunk its teeth into this one. Artistic director Seema Sueko does a superb job with a marvelously malleable cast, each of whom, with the exception of the wonderful Greg Watanabe, who plays Hwang, inhabits many characters, rapidly alternating gender, accent and ethnicity.
I have to confess that, at the outset, I thought the play was going to be a history lesson mixed with self-aggrandizement or, as the play itself puts it, a “self-indulgent” effort. The character Hwang confesses, “ in the end, everything’s always about me.” But Hwang the writer, and his myriad, multi-faceted characters, both fictional and real, get under your skin – whatever color it may be. The play concludes with a cross-cultural moral: “Nothing human is ever pure.” But the journey to that seemingly simplistic conclusion is repeatedly provocative and unpredictable, fascinating and illuminating.
The set and lighting, projections and performances keep the effort nimble, often laugh-out-loud funny, though some of the second act’s harrowing stories are a lot less than comical. Hwang is an interesting character – on or offstage. What he has to say is worth listening to, and his way of confronting or re-creating historical events is never less than enthralling.
The Mo’olelo production of “Yellow Face” runs through October 31, at the 10th Avenue Theatre downtown.
©2010 PAT LAUNER