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Hwang concurs (“Aesthetic judgments have political implications”) and cites Yew’s A Language of Their Own for its absence of an Orientalist vocabulary (“It’s not about dragons, and it’s not about gongs”).
Yew flippantly replies that he is considering adding gongs, dragons and helicopters to his next production to ensure a long Broadway run — suggesting that he sees Orientalism as one way to attract non-Asian patrons. But on a more serious note, he adds, “Even Asians in Asia are glomming onto Orientalist art forms. People are painting themselves into yellowface.”
Both plays subvert the grip of the Orientalist stranglehold on the popular imagination, but in diametrically opposed ways. Hwang has ushered in an updated, “authentically” all-Asian, all-singing, but very old-fashioned, musical to the stage, thereby challenging Orientalist motifs in a mainstream genre. (Flower Drum Song was originally slated for the much larger Ahmanson Theater.) But in Red, Yew has crafted a play that he views as Brechtian in its application of alienation theory, though others — including strangers on the streets of Singapore, where the play was performed — have remarked on the “Chineseness” of his form. All three roles are played by women, with Jeanne Sakata playing a man playing a woman. (Yew says, “I went with my gut instinct and cast Jeanne — and because David took all the best actors for Flower Drum Song!”) Red’s unorthodox production history includes a brief West Coast tryout, a New York run and the Singapore run.
Besides playing with cultural stereotypes, the two playwrights explore gender conformity in their work. Echoing a sentiment in Hwang’s M. Butterfly, Yew says, “Men do drag very well because they like to epitomize the ideal woman. Everything is accentuated and exaggerated, and it’s funny and dramatic and campy.”
But Hwang makes it clear that gender role-playing is very different from ethnic role-playing. “There’s often a reward for acting your assigned gender role, but there aren’t a whole lot of rewards for acting your ethnic role,” he says as he finishes his coffee. Yew has also drained his cup. Both have assiduously avoided the Taper’s institutional java. Neither has chosen tea.
Paraphrasing Oscar Wilde, Hwang says, “Man is most himself when he hides behind a mask.”
If there’s anything that binds these two productions, and their playwrights, it’s the truthfulness that comes from concealment.
Red is performed by East West Players, at the David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 N. Judge John Aiso St., downtown; Thurs.–Sat. 8 p.m., matinees Sat.–Sun. 2 p.m.; through Oct. 28; call (213) 625-7000.Flower Drum Song is performed at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; Tues.–Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7:30 p.m., matinees Sat.–Sun. 2:30 p.m.; through Dec. 2; call (213) 628-2772; TDD, (213) 680-4017.