Reviewed by Judy Richter
In "Yellow Face," making its West Coast premiere at TheatreWorks, playwright David Henry Hwang explores the issue of racism directed against people of Asian descent. The launching point is the furor over the casting of white actor Jonathan Pryce in the Eurasian role of the Engineer in the U.S. production of "Miss Saigon" in 1990. Hwang and actor B.D. Wong filed a protest with Actors Equity Association, which barred Pryce from the show. Making a legitimate claim for artistic freedom, producer Cameron Mackintosh threatened to cancel the show, leading the union to relent.
In this quasi-autobiographical play, Hwang's character, known as DHH (Pun Bandhu), mistakenly casts a white actor in an Asian role in his new play, then tries to cover up his mistake by saying that the actor, Marcus (Thomas Azar), has Siberian ancestry that makes him Asian. DHH's play is a flop, but Marcus achieves success as an Asian actor, playing the lead male role in "The King and I" and infuriating DHH. All of this takes place in the first act, which tends to make the same point over and over.
The second act becomes more interesting as Hwang weaves in the story of DHH's father, HYH (Francis Jue), a successful Chinese immigrant banker who is accused of illegal activities. The government's case against Wen Ho Lee, the scientist accused of spying for China, also comes into play, implying that both HYH and Lee were the victims of racist hysteria. However, Bandhu makes DHH himself so hysterical at times that the play begins feeling like a polemic.
Director Robert Kelley has more success with the rest of the cast, led by Jue as HYH and other characters, including Lee. Jue also serves as movement consultant. Four other actors -- Tina Chilip, Robert Ernst, Amy Resnick and Howard Swain -- play a variety of other roles, all with great success. The simple set is by J.B. Wilson, complemented by Steven B. Mannshardt's lighting. Costumes are by Fumiko Bielefeldt with sound by Cliff Caruthers.
Although Hwang raises valid, thought-provoking points, "Yellow Face" is ultimately not as satisfying as his much-honored "M. Butterfly."