Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Review: Yellow Face at Mark Taper Forum

Michael Sedano

Gente in Los Angeles have until July 1 to get to the Mark Taper Theatre for a performance of David Henry Hwang's "Yellow Face." Hwang's covering miles of political and theatrical territory in this inspired farce, including the unintended conclusion that there's not a lot of difference between chicano and chinese identity satire.

Real-life David Henry Hwang won Tony awards and Pulitzer nominations for his work, making him a leading role model and spokesperson for Asian teatrical interests. When the mega hit Miss Saigon heads to Broadway, Hwang leads the protest against the European actor cast to play the Asian male lead. Hwang is chagrined to be accused of reverse racism, of stifling artistic freedom of the actor who should be free to play any role, of harming the income of the producers who have to choose the best actor to sell tickets. So the white guy gets to play the Asian guy, in yellow face. It's a familiar refrain when applied to opportunities for Latina Latino actors and roles.

Somewhere between the actual dust-up over the Brit in the lead of Miss Saigon and the Taper's main stage, playwright Hwang becomes a character in his own play. The struggle over the casting of Miss Saigon redounds on poor Hwang, the character. Casting a play and desperate for a leading man--an Asian leading man--Hwang brings in an actor based on his resume. The director is curious about the actor's ethnicity, but distastful of the "what are you?" question that bedevils Asians--and Chicanas Chicanos, too, for that matter--Hwang the character suddenly understands his miscasting in the midst of an interview. Gotta sell tickets, the desperate Hwang the character thinks, so he lies, creating a fantasy history for his actor. The actor's antepasados were Russian Jews, a lot of Jews were sent to Siberia, Siberia is in Asia, hence the actor qualifies as Asian.

Once you have a good lie, stick to it. The outlandish lie works beyond Hwang the character's intention. The actor becomes a major Asian role model and the bane of Hwang the character's existence and the lynchpin to the play's central concern with Asian identity. The white guy as Asian role model makes for loud hilarity in the auditorium and telling irony. The white guy's stardom gives him credibililty to express ideas important to the Asian community. But Hwang the character wants to expose the fraud and accept the consequences. After all, what's more important, the value of the speaker's ideas, or the speaker's DNA?

It's the DNA that seems to make a big difference, Hwang the playwright points out. Using the smear of Wen Ho Lee by the FBI and press as an example, Hwang wants to blow the whistle on a systematic demonization of China and things Chinese. It's a good point but needs to be reworked. This is the one part of the play that slows down the energy and wit that otherwise filled the Taper with good vibrations. By the time the play hits Broadway, I'm sure this part will be excised or slimmed way down to take into account comments like one I heard about poisoned pet food additives from Chinese companies.

Yellow Face runs through July 1 at the Taper in downtown Los Angeles.

Please check out our Sunday guest column, Andrea Sáenz' report from the National Latino Writer's Conference.

And in the upper left hand corner of this webpage is a logo linking you to an opportunity to vote for La Bloga's nomination for a "Blogitzer" for writing, another for Entertainment, and a third for being "about stuff". Stuff, indeed.

June is bustin' out all over, isn't it? See you next week.


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