In August of 1990, when British producer Cameron Mackintosh wanted to bring Miss Saigon from London’s West End to Broadway with Welsh star Jonathan Pryce playing the show’s Eurasian pimp, Asian-American activists howled protests at the U.S. stage actors union, Actors’ Equity. Asians have the right to play themselves in a larger cultural quest for “authenticity,” they argued. It was the heyday of identity politics in America, and the union initially refused to allow Pryce to play the role on Broadway. Playwright David Henry Hwang’s leadership in that protest was widely reported,andmuch of that reportage is depicted as a kind of docudrama at the Mark Taper Forum in Hwang’s new play, Yellow Face.
It didn’t go well for Hwang — first Mackintosh said he wouldn’t bring Miss Saigon to New York without Pryce, and the prospect of losing that production’s jobs brought furious counterprotests — and the author’s portrayal of himself is strikingly self-deprecating. Playing Hwang, the muscular Hoon Lee stands wearing something between a smirk and grimace, explaining how healthy it is that ethnic casting is finally being discussed so openly. Healthy discussion? You can almost hear the mob on 42nd Street erecting gallows.
Actors’ Equity did reverse itself, Miss Saigon played thousands of performances on Broadway, and Pryce won a Tony Award for his part in it. On the Taper stage is the character of Hwang, here named DHH, speaking with his father (Tzi Ma) — a banker in San Marino, California. As DHH is describing an idea for a play about Rudyard Kipling, we see the blank expression on Dad’s face, then a change of subject: “Son, can you get me tickets to Miss Saigon?”
Hwang then moves on to a “casting dispute” in his 1993 farce, Face Value, which flopped in Boston and died in previews in New York. Hwang shows his double as advocating for a Caucasian-appearing actor named Marcus Dahlman (Peter Scanavino) to play a Eurasian role because the playwright mistakenly believes that the actor has some Chinese ancestry. The Eurasian is supposed to be in whiteface and, in a coup de théâtre, would wipe away his mask to reveal his “authentic” self. In a mix-up, however, the wrong actor has been recruited from a theater troupe in Northern California. After it becomes obvious that the bewildered young man doesn’t have a drop of Chinese blood in him, DHH is in a bind, especially after the Miss Saigon imbroglio. As one of the producers (Tony Torn) remarks incredulously, it doesn’t really matter who Marcus’ ancestors are, what’s the audience going to think when he takes off his whiteface to reveal a white face?
DHH tries to save his own face by anointing Marcus with a false Asian identity, naming him “Marcus Gee” and saying in press conferences that his ancestors are from Siberia, near the Asian peninsula.
On the Taper stage, through a combination of fiction, farce and self-mockery, Hwang is burying the era of identity politics that brought him fame. He’s burying its strident folly and its Balkanized view of the world with soil tracked in all the way from Siberia. Hwang acknowledges that we come from many places. As Marcus learns from a later soul-searching trek to China, the communal songs they sing in a village named Zhencong were brought over the Carpathian Mountains from Eastern Europe a thousand years earlier. Marcus being Chinese may not be so outlandish after all. And his “authenticity” may not necessarily derive from his blood or his birth certificate.
As Marcus grows into his role, he also grows into his adopted Chinese culture, becoming a community activist and finding a home, and an identity, where before he had none. Yet as Face Value grinds toward the New York iceberg that’s going to sink it, DHH realizes he needs somebody who looks Asian for the role. He fires Marcus through intermediaries, and refuses to return the actor’s distraught phone calls. Marcus sails on, however, repeatedly popping up in DHH’s life and tormenting him by his public rise as a Chinese figure who wields an identity entirely fabricated by the “authenticity activist” playwright.
(A Chinese-American actor named Dennis Dun from Stockton, California, actually originated the role in Face Value, and was replaced for the show’s one week of NYC previews by Law & Order’s B.D. Wong.)
I’m almost sure that Hwang invented the ethnic casting crisis in Face Value. Hwang calls his play a “faux autobiography,” and — echoing W.B. Yeats, who, a century earlier, gathered Celtic folktales from the backwoods of Ireland — Hwang has been speaking eloquently about fiction holding more truth than the facts. (This is getting to be a tiresome argument, given how embellished facts have led to pointless wars, and how scientific truths about global warming have been willfully blanketed in a shroud of fiction.) Still, the “power of imagination” has become something of a flavor of the month in the culture (from Lasse Hallström’s 2006 film The Hoax, about the media frenzy surrounding Clifford Irving’s bogus biography of Howard Hughes, to Donald Margulies’ new play about a turn-of-the-century faked adventure story, Shipwrecked!). Here we are, still grinding out the same 16th-century questions of identity that obsessed Pedro Calderón de la Barca in Life Is a Dream, and a swath of Shakespeare comedies, as well as Hamlet — what is “authentic” in life, and how does what we pretend to be relate to who we are?
Things get really interesting late in Yellow Face when the feds start investigating influence peddling by the Chinese government in U.S. elections, sucking DHH, his banker father and Marcus into a Senate investigation. Here’s “yellow peril” back in contemporary America, spewing out the same stereotypes that gave rise to identity politics in the first place. Round and round we go, whether it’s Asians or Persians or Jews.
In some ways, Hwang may be too clever for his play’s own good. I don’t care much what Hwang or his doppelgänger have to say about identity politics anymore — not because they’ve reversed their views, but because Hwang, to his credit, has been so daringly truthful about DHH’s foibles. Using the “fiction is more persuasive than fact” argument, I take DHH’s willingness to do and say almost anything to save face as qualities that reside in Hwang’s own soul. When DHH becomes a board member in his father’s bank only because he gets paid to attend meetings, and when DHH later blathers to the feds about joining the bank to help his community, I get the joke. I also get that DHH is a bit of a con artist. Why should I take him, or the views of the author he’s standing in for, at face value? All of which makes the identity politics swirling throughout Yellow Face something of a mirage.
Yellow Face is actually about a man staring at his reflection in a river, trying to fathom, with blazing honesty, the illusion of flesh, and face, and what truths those illusions might contain. And this is the search for authenticity that I love most about Hwang’s play. Director Leigh Silverman knows this too, because designer David Korins’ set contains, as its centerpiece, a huge, freestanding mirror in a gilded frame. Sometimes the mirror contains neon electrical circuits, during cell-phone calls. It’s at its most powerful, however, when simply reflecting the seven actors from the stage. Her staging is obvious, the humor pumped up and the performances energetic, more faithful to the play than to the multifaceted dynamics of a theatrical event.
Yet the play itself is a remarkable, shape-shifting accomplishment. Narcissus flowers grow along riverbanks, it’s said, so their blooms can lean over and observe their reflections in the tide. More often than not in art, such introspection emerges as self-indulgent piffle, but here, you can see worlds of politics and dreams swirling in the water.
YELLOW FACE | By DAVID HENRY HWANG | Presented by CENTER THEATRE GROUP and THE PUBLIC THEATER, in association with EAST WEST PLAYERS at the MARK TAPER FORUM, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | Through July 1 | (213) 628-2772 or www.taperahmanson.org