A Side of Rice with Your Ego?
David Henry Hwang Mocks America, Race Relations, and Himself
In Yellow Face, Tony Award–winning playwright David Henry Hwang strolls down the fine, fine line between tolerable self-reference and literary masturbation. The story, a semiautobiographical mix of fiction and reality, centers on the playwright's critique of Miss Saigon's 1991 Broadway run, in which the white actor Jonathan Pryce was cast in an Asian role. In a botched attempt to prove that Asians "have the right to play themselves," Hwang (Moses Yim) writes a flop called Face Value. He makes a colossal blunder, however, when he casts a white man, Marcus G. Dahlman (Lee Osorio) in the lead Asian role. Upon realizing that Dahlman is white, Hwang tries to cover up his mistake by affirming that Dahlman is a "Siberian Asian Jew." But as Dahlman's new identity takes on a life of its own—he becomes an influential spokesman for the Asian community—and Hwang's father's bank falls under investigation by the federal government, Hwang begins to question his own identity as an Asian American.
Presented in its Seattle premiere by ReAct Theatre and the Pork Filled Players, Yellow Face is an often-hilarious lampoon of racial typecasting, American media, the immigrant experience, and the playwright himself. Jeremy Behrens, a member of the ensemble, steals the show by switching roles and accents faster than a speeding dim sum cart. In one memorable scene, he runs the gamut of Southern drawls, playing senators from Alabama, Kansas, Georgia, Texas, and Tennessee.
The play—sometimes boisterous, sometimes bitterly ironic—is, for the most part, good. But when it's bad, it's very bad: Its overly meta conclusion is saccharine and clumsy, the self-referential irony heavy-handed and fatuous.
Trying to figure out how much of the plot was invented by Hwang and how much actually happened is part of the fun of Yellow Face, which snagged both an Obie Award and a Pulitzer nomination. The other, larger, part lies in realizing that that doesn't matter: It is a riotous mockery in all its measures.