AISLE SAY New York
by David Henry Hwang
Directed by Leigh Silverman
Starring Hoon Lee and Noah Bean
Public Theater / 425 Lafayette Street
Reviewed by David Spencer
Many are the storytellers, in prose and drama, who have—at times or in toto—successfully used their art as a bully pulpit for causes near and dear to them, and with no little courage…but it takes a particular and different kind of courage for a writer to examine not only the subject at hand, but how his own zealousness may have blinded him from seeing a bigger picture. And in Yellow Face, currently at the Public Theater, David Henry Hwang has wonderfully pulled off that double-barreled trick. And he does it with what seems to be an autobiographical docu-drama. Or docu-comedy-drama. He’s venturing into somewhat new territory here, so it’s hard to be precise. Suffice it to say that our narrator and guide is “DHH” (as the program calls him, but in the text, the author’s full name is used without resorting to such coyness), while the rest of the ensemble play multiple roles in the saga. Save one, who like DHH, has his own, solitary role.
Hwang was among the most vocal Asian artists who protested the importation of occidental Jonathan Pryce to recreate his London role as the half-Asian “Engineer” in the Broadway debut of Miss Saigon. But having registered his protest, publicly and in print, Hwang felt he’d made his point and sat out active demonstration. The brouhaha ended, of course, favoring power producer Cameron Mackintosh. This is dramatized.
Some years later, Hwang decided to revisit his protest in the form of a play, a farce he called About Face, which concerned such a casting move being thrown into chaos by an interfering Asian actor. The out of town reviews were not encouraging and in New York it closed in previews. This is dramatized.
Also dramatized is Hwang’s own inadvertent casting of an occidental actor in the lead Asian role, and the consequences of that; the change of fortune in said actor’s career as—despite being let go before the show comes to NY—he uses the Hwang association to refashion his identity, and become a prominent spokesperson for the Asian community. The irony of this, and the effect it has on DHH’s equilibrium—especially when compounded by the views of his decidedly “civilian”-minded banker father (Francis Jue, in one of several roles), founder of the first commercial Asian bank in the USA, for whom the dream of American citizenship, when he was a young man in China, was shaped by American films, and the aspiration to live up to the iconic images provided by James Stewart and Henry Fonda—is likewise dramatized.
However, there’s even more going on here than meets the Oriental or occidental-shaped eye, because there’s a point where what is dramatized diverges from what was true…but Hwang is interested, as of course a dramatist must be, in an even bigger truth, which is the ruthless dissection of racial politics both “good” and “bad”, and the notion that clinging to any absolutist position, even for the “right” reason, imposes unjust, prejudicial limits somewhere. In the end, Hwang suggests, specific context and the health of the human spirit must be deemed more valuable than any pure (or purist) ideology, liberal or conservative. In a way, this is agit-prop for the new millennium, evolved and complex, examining layers within layers. And it doesn’t hurt that, for the most part, Hwang delivers it with humor and unflinching self-deprecation.
In the key roles, Hoon Lee (DHH) amusingly explores the many colors of exasperation, while Noah Bean as his passing for yellow bane never loses his patina of innocence, embodying the old Jean Girodeux maxim which goes, “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made.” Other cast members, the aforementioned Mr. Jue, plus Julienne Hanzelka Kim, Kathryn Layng, Lucas Caleb Rooney and Anthony Torn, ably deliver the “epic shorthand” of director Leigh Silverman’s quicksilver, bare-bones, nearly “black box” style production.
I have some quibbles here with segments that seem overwritten, or points that seem overarticulated, but the bumps are minor and fixable, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find them attended to in future: Yellow Face has announced three extensions since opening at the Public Theatre, and “feels” ripe for a move to an open-ended venue. Closer to home, the lady in my life, who was my companion the evening I attended, hasn’t stopped talking about it yet. And she’s not alone. You can’t ask more of a play of ideas than that it keep you thinking…