‘Yellow Face’ raises timely questions

Yellow Face Raises Timely Questions

By Heddy Weiss
Chicago Sun Times, June 21, 2011
There is nothing quite as effective for twisting a person completely out of shape as the attempt to be truly, madly, deeply politically correct. But even the most fervent and unaffected true believes can end up with egg on their faces.

If you have any doubts about all this, take a look at “Yellow Face,” the quasi-autobiographical 2007 drama by David Henry Hwang — the playwright still best known for his career-making 1988 work, “M. Butterfly,” which earned him the distinction of becoming the first Asian writer to win the Tony Award.

Yellow Face,” now in an ambitious production by the Silk Road Theatre Project — and the first of three productions of Hwang’s plays to be produced on Chicago stages in the coming weeks — might seem self-congratulatory at first. But stick with it, for before it’s all over you will realize Hwang has done several impressive things in his play.

First and foremost Hwang has bravely bared every personal weakness, character flaw, confusion of principles and career failure of his own. He has given us a searingly honest appreciation of his father, a Chinese immigrant who loved the U.S., amassed a fortune as a banker, and became embroiled in a couple of scandals before his death in 2005. He has walked barefoot through through those dangerous minefields we know as “colorblind casting,” “racial discrimination,” “equal opportunity,” “ethnic stereotyping” and “ethnic tourism.” He has tweaked our understanding of “The King and I,” “Miss Saigon,” his own plays, as well as the whole notion of acting. And along the way he has made us think again about that ever-present question: What is an American?

Directed by Steve Scott, “Yellow Face” is not without its lumps, bumps and repetitiousness in writing and performance. But it is provocative, caustically funny and touching. And it certainly raises questions about this country’s ever-shifting relationship with China and the Far East.

The play is set in motion as Hwang (played with a nice touch of guilelessness by David Rhee), becomes embroiled in the dispute over the casting of Jonathan Pryce, a Caucasian actor, in the Broadway production of “Miss Saigon.” It is not long before the playwright himself casts Marcus Ghee (Clayton Stamper, winningly guileless in his own way), because he is the “best actor” for an Asian role in his play, though Hwang manages to deny the obvious about Marcus’ origins, and the actor thrives for years as a semi-altruistic pseudo-Asian who haunts Hwang’s every move.

And this is only a small part of the story which cleverly sees to it that all the actors play multiple races, types and sexes at various points. Joseph Anthony Foronda is Hwang’s matter-of-fact dad. Tanya McBride is the playwright’s fiery activist ex-girlfriend. And Lydia Berger, Christopher Meister and Christopher Popio play everything from swaggering politicians to manipulative journalists. A it turns out, nothing and no one can be taken at full face value.

NOTE: Hwang’s play, “Chinglish,” will have its world premiere June 27 at the Goodman Theatre, and his early work, “Family Devotions,” starts Aug. 11 at Halcyon Theatre.