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A CurtainUp Review
Yellow Face
Yellow Face Comes to the Public Theater
by Elyse Sommer

Yellow Face
Francis Jue & Hoon Lee
(Photo Credit: Joan Marcus)
Though once a fixture on Broadway, it's already six years since Miss Saigon ended its ten-year run. Long enough for the brouhaha (with playwright David Henry Hwang the chief brouhaer) over casting a white actor, Jonathan Pryce, as the lead to be forgotten by most people. It's been over a dozen years since Face Value, Hwang's play prompted by that controversial casting landed on Broadway. But even featuring B. D. Wong, the star of the playwright's biggest hit, M. Butterfly, Face Value didn't survive long enough to open officially.

While I can count myself among those unlucky enough to actually see the short-lived Face Value, the only thing about it that sticks to my memory is a vague impression of a monumental mess. Thus I was surprised to hear that in Yellow Face (the Asian-American version of the once common practice of white actors in blackface) Hwang was revisiting not only the no longer hot controversy about the Miss Saigon casting but the dead on arrival Face Value. Why in the world would Hwang try to reactivate an old scandal or call attention to a best forgotten failure?

Now that I've seen Yellow Face and thought about it within the context of Mr. Hwang's entire ouevre, however, it makes sense. Yellow Face is not so much a case of digging up the corpses of the Miss Saigon dispute and his failed play, but a continuing chapter in his focus —some might call it his obsession— on the issues of ethnic and sexual identity (Golden Girl, F.O.B., Family Devotions and, of course, M. Butterfly).

Being a savvy man of the theater it's also understandable why he's chosen to make this latest in his ongoing and very personal odyssey a comedy and cast himself as the character of the anti-hero. That character is DHH (the excellent Hoon Lee) who, thanks to the comedic slant and the author's willingness to make himself the butt of his own jokes as he muddles his way into exemplifying exactly what he denounces. Even though this conceit smacks of narcissism (as DHH himself admits: "in the end everything is always about me."), it is quite apt since the serio-comic misunderstandings and mishaps surrounding Miss Saigon and Face Value — and by extension, Yellow Face— stem from casting decisions.

Leigh Silverman, who directed the Los Angeles production of Yellow Face reviewed by Curtainup's David Avery also helms the play's Public Theater engagement. The LA design team and most of the actors are also aboard. In keeping with the you can no longer identify people by a quick look at their faces, some are Asian, some are not. Granted, it's fine, and quite necessary, for artists to explore issues of integrity and to speak out against prejudice that continues to regularly zero in on one group of people or another, I didn't find Yellow Face quite as provocative as David did —maybe because I've been waiting since M. Butterfly and Golden Girl for a really slam bang Hwang play. Nevertheless, I agree with most of what he says so will add just a few more comments to his review.

The bare bones staging and use of an announcer (Antony Torn) to identify the next multiple role playing actor (including real people like producer Cameron Macintosh, then-critic Frank Rich, novelist Gish Jenn, actress Jane Krakowski, and others) adds to the documentary flavor and fun even though this is as much fiction as fact. Nevertheless, all the Miss Saigon-Face Value details are likely to test the patience of audience members for whom this is second-hand news. At any rate, the first act would benefit from some blue pencilling so that we could move faster into the deeper second act.

Of the actors new to the cast, I can't think of anyone who could play DHH's father with more scene stealing humor than Francis Jue. The interchanges between the son and the father, who for most of his life believed in and lived the American Dream, comprise the play's best and most emotionally authentic moments — perhaps because they are so oviously based on the playwright's own late father and his rise to banker and disillusioning fall from grace.

The other major cast change is Noah Bean as Marcus, the good-hearted white actor who can't resist the temptation to pass as part Asian in the interest of a starring role. Bean is suitably charming as the actor who out yellow faces the real Asians and who gives Hwang a chance to end his play with a Brechtian finale.
In many ways Yellow Face reminded me of another identity issue play, Well, in which Lisa Kron wrote as well as performed as her own main character, and which was also directed by Leigh Silverman at the Public Theater. (review) Now if only Mr. Hwang would write a play that could feature Francis Jue and Jane Houdyshell, the actress who played Kron's scene stealing mom.

Production Notes
Public Theater Cast: The * in front of the following cast members, indicates that they are new to this production: *Noah Bean (Marcus), *Francis Jue (Hyh and others), Julienne Hanzelka Kim (Leah and others), Kathryn Layng (Jane, Myles and otghers), Hoon Lee (DHH), Lucas Caleb Rooney (Stuart, Rocco and others), Anthony Torn (Anouncer and {Name Withheld on Advice of Counsel}.
The Public Theater & Center Theatre Group at the Public Theater's Martinson Hall, 425 Lafayette Street. 212/ 967-7555
From 11/19/07; opening 12/10/07; closing 12/23/07-extended to 12/30/07- and again to 1/13/08.
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission
Tickets are $50 with student tickets available in advance, at the box office only, for $25 (1 per ID). $20 Rush Tickets sold an hour before curtain at every performance.
Performances: are Tuesdays at 7 PM; Wednesdays thru Fridays at 8 PM; Saturdays at 2 PM and 8 PM; and Sundays at 3 PM and 7 PM.

The Los Angeles Production Review By David Avery
I'm a writer, so in the end everything is always about me.— DHH

Yellow Face is the latest work from David Henry Hwang, the Asian-American playwright whose most famous play is probably M. Butterfly. The only reason I make the distinction about his ethnicity is that the play itself is about "Asian-American Playwright David Henry Hwang" (DHH for short), tracing his life from the success of M. Butterfly to the near present, and his attempts to come to grips with his role as "Asian Spokesman for the Dramatic Arts"

The play details the fallout from DHH (Hoon Lee) hiring non-Asian actor Marcus (Peter Scanavino) to star in Face Value, about Asian actors infiltrating a production company in "white face." This unfortunately occurs on the heels of DHH's public protests against Caucasian star Jonathan Pryce acting in a Eurasian role in Miss Saigon's Broadway debut. When DHH learns of his mistake he does his best to cover it up, and eventually replaces Marcus with "go-to" Asian B. D. Wong. However, the white actor who previously played Marcus, disillusioned by his experience, decides to travel to China to experience Asian culture and, after assimilating an Asian psyche returns the United States as a premiere "Asian" actor and spokesman for Asian rights. This causes DHH no end of annoyance and more than a little trepidation.

That is the first act, and as a farce of mistaken identity, it is very funny. There is a sense of self-deprecation in the words that shines through. Lee plays DHH with an earnest sincerity that compliments the action. Indignities upon indignities mount as the fallout from his disastrous play hit home. We identify immediately with DHH's predicament.

Without giving away too much, the subject and tone of the second act are a complete surprise, and take the play in a direction that is wholly unanticipated. Rather than being jarring, the change turns the play into much more than a simple comedy but reveals Hwang's deeper intentions. He is addressing issues of race and comes to the conclusion that perhaps being identified by one's race, even positively, may be more of a curse than a blessing. This is a playwright that has been in the spotlight long enough to be comfortable under a microscope and his honesty truly shines through. Yes, it is fact mixed with fiction, but it is still an unflattering portrait of the artist.

Yellow Face is staged on a plain stage with only a reflective backdrop as set decoration, perhaps to emphasis the contemplative nature of the material. It's really a one-man show that happens to have other actors assisting the lead. The supporting players are hardly non-essential, however. They provide Lee with a sounding board, and play a variety of rapid-fire roles that would challenge the most accomplished actor.

In the end, this play is less about racial politics and identity than about compromising one's artistic vision -- giving in to pressures to be what one is not just to satisfy the crowd (or to be accepted by them). It asks if how one identifies oneself is any less important or real than what one has inherited. While it touches on some of the problems our society has in dealing with race, it does so in a way that places the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the individual. It also does it in a way that is both humorous and touching.
Director: Leigh Silverman
Playwright: David Henry Hwang
Cast: 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)
Costume Design: Myung Hee Cho
Lighting Design: Donald Holder
Sound Design: Darron L. West
Set Design: David Korins
Running Time: Two hours (with one 15 minute intermission)
Running Dates: May 10 through July 1
Times: Tues. through Sat. @ 8pm, Sundays @ 7:30pm, Sat. and Sun. @ 2:30pm
Where:Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012
Tel.: 213-628-2772

Reviewed by David Avery on May 27, 2007.
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