Yellow Face by David Henry Hwang is a soul searching romp raising questions about racial identify, profiling, radical self-acceptance and more. Hwang’s writing is direct and sincere as he unveils his reactions to events that unfolded in his life while exploring his own intentions and motives as a playwright, an Asian American, and dutiful son.
The dramatic tension is based on Hwang’s earlier notorious protest of a white actor being cast as the Eurasian pimp in Broadway’s Miss Saigon. When he inadvertently does a similar thing for his own show, he desperately tries to save face by concocting every possible ancestry line for his actor, feeding him socially responsible (and convoluted) responses about his supposed Asian heritage. It’s a tongue-in-cheek riot, adroitly covering issues about racial identity– a thought- provoking kernel wrapped in gooey layers of frothing and frolicking questions and open-ended answers.
Stan Kang sincerely portrays the mental gyrations of DHH, the playwright’s alter-ego, as he gets caught up in the cultural fray of his own making. What Kang lacks in emotional range, he more than compensates for in asserting his character’s good intentions, no matter what. On the other hand, Al Twanmo playing the role of Hwang’s father and other ensemble parts, is a more seasoned performer who can ratchet up the intensity level— eager to take on the Congressional investigative Committee, as well as the softer moments of admiring his son’s notoriety, even when reviews are brutal—look, his name is in the newspaper, who cares what the words say? DHH obviously cares, a lot. The script digs deeply into socially constructed crevices and brings issues to light for us to contemplate, reflect, chuckle, even laugh out loud.
Playing the white actor who passes as “Euro”-Asian — this hilarious construct alone is worth the admission- Rafael Untalan is superb. Marcus G. Dahlman, AKA Marcus Gee goes through the most transformation and Untalan is a marvel to behold. First seen on a quest in the Orient, Untalan as Marcus Gee has a noble bearing and open inquisitive nature. You can almost see the wheels turning in his mind as he puts the puzzle pieces together about his own contrived ancestry and lets enough seep in to join in political action, even travel to China to see what sticks.
Hwang leaves no stone unturned as he torpedoes through all types of insinuations about Asian characters. Video projections of heralded politicians and theatrical icons, mixed with the actors, production designers, even the janitorial staff assure fully inclusive representation of those who have been touched by the issues. The script is heavily based on his own life, complete with real incidents and names that he brandishes with glee in astonishing transparency.
The first act starts with Hwang’s own artistic and cultural dilemma, then digs even deeper in the second act by showing the ramifications of stepping out of cultural bounds where his father risks being subjected to congressional scrutiny for presumed infractions. Hwang masterfully weaves the various threads together into a powerful missive, and the show delivers with a stellar ensemble cast who perform multiple roles. Brandon McCoy does a solid Ed Koch, Jacob Yeh melts into a variety of roles with ease, as does Mark Hairston — catch his John Kerry and Dick Cavett for exquisite blind casting, Sue Jin Song nails Lilly Tomlin among others, and the exuberant Tonya Beckman brings Jane Krakowski to life.
Set design by Luciana Stecconi invokes massive file cabinets with drawers that reach to the ceiling, some filled to capacity, crammed and spilling out with papers, files, pamphlets, and research projects. Lighting by the always remarkable Dan Covey helps tell the story with sophisticated transitions embellished by some of the best projection work I’ve seen on stage, designed by Jared Mezzocchi. Lighting and projections combine to create intricate designs on the floor, video segments, careful shadowing, flowing outlines, even a representational medical record on a vertical column. It sounds crazy but it all works.
Closes February 23, 2014
1529 16th Street NW
2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $35 – $50
Director Natsu Onoda Power pulls everything together with a flourish of crackling vision and wit. She makes excellent use of the rousing “Shall We Dance” refrain from The King and I in a “can’t we all just get along” moment, (but once was enough and a reprise wasn’t needed in the curtain call.)
The show sparkles with Hwang’s mastery of embedded emotional arguments about cultural authenticity that cover people of all shades and ethnicities. One particularly passionate interchange between Hwang and his creation “Marcus Gee” covered questions about cultural identity with such soul-stirring intensity that it was applauded. Hwang is no slouch in the interior identity department as evidenced from his carefully hewn characters in M. Butterfly, a finalist for the Pulitzer, and his multiple other creations.
Would you believe that same opening night, a female stand up comic’s bit on a late night show included the exact same issues of racial typecasting, and not coming across as “Asian” enough in her audition? It was an uncanny reminder within hours of the show that these issues are real, topical, and deeply embedded in our social construct and need to be explored. Kudos to Theater J for bringing such an accomplished production of Yellow Face to do just that in a delightfully entertaining jaunt. Shall we dance and all just get along, indeed.
Yellow Face by David Henry Hwang . Directed by Natsu Onoda Power . Featuring Tonya Beckman, Brandon McCoy, Mark Hairston, Stan Kang, Al Twanmo, Rafael Untalan, Jacob Yeh, and Sue Jin Song . Scenic design: Luciana Stecconi . Lighting design: Dan Covey . Costume design: Deb Sivigny . Sound design: Chris Baine . Projection design: Jared Mezzochi . Production stage manager: Roy Gross, assisted by Ruth Anne Watkins, Jessica Soriano . Produced by Theater J . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.