Sunday 2nd June 2013, matinée
We don’t know if it is a coincidence that David Henry Hwang’s 2007 play Yellowface arrived in the UK for its premier hot on the heels of the RSC’s recent ‘Orphan of Zhao’ casting debacle, but its arrival is certainly timely, if not overdue. Given that the inspiration for the play goes back to another East Asian casting controversy, the yellowfacing of Jonathan Pryce in Miss Saigon in the early 1990s, this was a play we had to see, and a good opportunity to check out the Park Theatre, currently running their opening season.
The play is in fact inspired by another play which David Henry Hwang wrote about the Miss Saigon furore, ‘Face Value’, his only flop. In time-honoured fashion, he has turned to mockumentary, weaving reality with fantasy and giving himself a hard time to great comic effect, whilst getting beyond the stereotypical clichés of race and ethnicity. The central character is himself, and the play starts with the arrival of Miss Saigon on Broadway, and the shocking news that Jonathan Pryce was to reprise is role as the ‘Eurasian’ Engineer, with the help of prosthetic make-up. Dismayed that such a practice should still be taking place in America in the 1990s, Hwang, as a respected figurehead of the Asian community, led a protest to Actor’s Equity by writing an open letter condemning the practice. The protest was only partially successful, and Hwang was perceived by some as backing down by not pursuing the cause. Next, we find him struggling to cast his own play, and somehow finding himself casting a Caucasian actor ‘by accident’. The farce escalates from there with some truly hilarious consequences as he tries to cover his tracks, all the time haunted by the actor, whom he fears will be his nemesis. Meanwhile, The US Government is waging a war on Chinese-American citizens, targeting them on the basis that Chinese ethnicity must surely lead to a natural allegiance with China as a nation.
The arrival of this imposter, Marchus G Dahlman, becomes the catalyst for an exploration of the whole notion of ‘face’. It is as though Hwang, tired of being a spokesperson for his community, wants to really test the limits of ethnic boundaries. Even the audition process, which should provide opportunities for ethnic minority actors, is portrayed as perversely racist as the casting director, prevented by law from asking directly, tries obliquely to work out Dahlman’s origins – (‘so, you live in Seattle, that’s a diverse community….’). In the end Dahlman, having joined in with the conspiracy to portray him as being of Asian heritage, embraces his new ethnicity with great enthusiasm, changing his name to ‘Marchus G’ and playing East Asian roles, whilst becoming a campaigner for his new ‘community’. Is it any less absurd, Hwang seems to be saying, than expecting a person to have certain views or attitudes simply because of the way their face looks. Putting the audience in the position of knowing observer as we watch everyone tie themselves in knots around an obviously white actor, makes the point even more effectively.
By making himself the centre of the farce, David Henry Hwang brilliantly sidesteps any notion that this is a ‘worthy’ or ‘polemical’ work. His character is just as ‘guilty’ as anyone of laziness and cowardice, and wanting to run away from responsibility, as he digs an ever deeper hole for himself, and crucially, he never forgets to be funny. The play has a serious message, but the dialogue is sharp and witty throughout.
Director Alex Sims has assembled an outstanding cast for this UK premier. Kevin Shen inhabits Hwang’s fictional alter ego with uncanny ease, perfectly balancing the tension between the ‘serious’ writer and the clown. He has a lightness of touch and intelligence which subtly draws us in to the story. Ben Starr as Marchus G, meanwhile, has fun with another stereotype – the over-eager aspiring actor. His superficiality is utterly convincing as he goes through a journey of the soul which ends with a neat twist. David Yip, who ironically came to fame as ‘The Chinese Detective’ in the early 1980s, shines in the key role of Hwang’s father, a first generation immigrant who has actively sought out America and its culture only to be slapped in the face by it. With humour, cynicism and dignity, he becomes the perfect foil for his vacillating son. The supporting cast, Gemma Chan, Christy Meyer, Davina Perera, and John Schwab, give the play depth and scope by brilliantly providing a vast array of minor characters and parts of the narrative, with snappy timing and minimal costume and set.
It’s not often that a play is entertaining, thought-provoking and politically challenging all at once, but by appearing to dodge the issue entirely, Hwang has given us space to really explore what it means to judge and be judged on outward appearance, and giving some insight into why it is so difficult for humans to move beyond it.