Although I saw Yellow Face a fortnight ago, I’m writing this in the aftermath of the ‘political earthquake’ unleashed by UKIP’s strong performance in both the local government and European elections last week (UKIP now has more MEPs than any other UK party). Even though commentators have recently claimed that so-called ‘casual racism’ is in decline, the remarks made by Nigel Farage and members of his party during the campaign season – not to mention the latest gaffe by Jeremy Clarkson – demonstrate that this is not the case. As the right-wing parties in many European countries also enjoyed strong showings in last week’s elections, Yellow Face, despite being written in 2007 by Chinese-American playwright David Henry Hwang in response to the problems faced by Asian actors on Broadway and in Hollywood due to the colour of their skin, still seems worryingly and highly topical.
Questions of identity, race and ethnicity are not only fraught, but are also notoriously slippery: How do these three concepts interact? Who gets to decide if something, or someone, is racist? Does our racial heritage always play a part in our identity? Can we choose the racial community to which we belong, and are there relevant ‘criteria’ we have to satisfy? Where does the difference between how we see ourselves and how others see us fit into all this? Appropriately, then, Yellow Face is also a slippery play, in the best sense of the word. Beneath its comic veneer – and it really is very funny – Yellow Face is intricate and complex, a nimble combination of fact and fiction, a semi-autobiographical play within a play within a play in which the writer is the main character (and for once that actually works). Yellow Face examines these questions through the lens of casting stage actors – is race in this case ever really not an issue? – but it soon becomes clear that the play’s scope is much bigger.
Yellow Face takes as its starting point the controversial 1989 casting of the Caucasian British actor Jonathan Pryce as The Engineer in Miss Saigon. When the play transferred from London’s West End to Broadway, Hwang was one of the most vocal protestors against Pryce’s casting. The US Actors’ Equity Association initially refused to allow Pryce to recreate the Eurasian role in New York, arguing that casting an Asian actor in the role would be an ‘important and significant opportunity to break the usual pattern of casting Asians in minor roles.’ Yet questions of race and discrimination work both ways, and one of the reasons that the AEA was forced to reverse its ruling about Pryce’s casting was because it was argued that they were practicing a ‘hypocritical reverse racism’ and that Pryce was the victim of prejudicial treatment on account of being Caucasian.
Yellow Face then moves from fact to fiction (though, confusingly, still based on fact – do keep up), as Hwang tries to cast actors for his new play Face Value. (Face Value was a critical and commercial flop when it opened on Broadway in 1993, something Hwang has no problem recounting here, and his willingness to criticise himself contributes to the humour of the play and ensures that it doesn’t become too egocentric.) Problems ensue when Hwang accidentally casts a Caucasian actor (Marcus G. Dahlman) in the lead Asian role in Face Value.
Much of the comedy in Yellow Face arises from the casting process (it’s against US Equity rules to directly ask about an actor’s ethnicity, and Davina Perera is brilliant as the squirming casting director desperately trying to discover whether Dahlman has Asian ancestry), and also from Hwang’s earnest attempts (once he discovers the truth and is unable to re-cast Dahlman for fear of accusations of, yes, racism) to pass Dahlman off as a Siberian Jew, i.e. someone with Asian ancestry who can (therefore legitimately?) play the role in which he’s been cast.
More interesting questions arise when – surprisingly – Dahlman begins to embrace his new-found ethnicity and community. Now performing under the name Marcus G, his perceived race helps him land the lead role in The King & I; he becomes a spokesman for Asian-American actors; he starts ‘doing and saying things that need to be done’ regarding issues important to Asian-Americans; he claims to have discovered his true identity. Hwang accuses Marcus G of being an ‘ethnic tourist’, claiming one cannot choose their race, and the scene where he finally confronts G is fascinating for the questions it raises about how we define our own racial identity, how far it defines us, and whether it can ever be something mutable; should we be able to self-identify as the race we feel inside, regardless of which race we were born into, or will how we look on the outside always define us? Is Hwang right when he tells Dahlman that there is a fundamental difference between being born into one culture as opposed to choosing it?
Matters take a slight turn in the second half, which contained, for me, one of the strongest scenes in the play but also many of the weakest; it was a shame that the momentum, so brilliantly built up under Alex Sims’s swift, dynamic direction, was lost for much of it. In the second half, Hwang explores the rise of ‘Yellow Peril’, the suspicion and hysteria that reached its peak in the United States in the early 1990s. Marcus G is shown to suffer from racism and victimisation as a result of his perceived ethnicity – it causes problems in castings and he is investigated by the US authorities because of certain political donations, while Hwang’s father (a hugely successful California-based banker who emigrated from China to America as a child), is investigated by the FBI for alleged money-laundering, and Hwang accuses the authorities of acting prejudicially on the grounds of race. Though David Yip is excellent throughout as Hwang’s father, his scenes in the second half feel slightly out-of-balance with the rest of the material, as Hwang drops the comedy in favour of tackling America’s issues with race more seriously, which (tellingly?) doesn’t work as successfully.
However, towards the end of the play there is a wonderfully tense scene between Hwang and a reporter (interestingly, the only unnamed character in the play) who is attempting to interview him about the allegations. At one point the reporter (played brilliantly by Christy Meyer) asks Hwang, ‘Does your father see himself as more Chinese or more American?’ ‘That question,’ responds an exasperated Hwang, ‘makes no sense’. He then tells the reporter that no conflict is seen between being white and being American, so why should there be any conflict between being of any other race or colour and also seeing oneself as American? It’s a fantastically scripted duel between two characters for whom words are their weapon and the way they wield power (Hwang’s response to the reporter’s harsh line of questioning is to threaten the reporter by including them in his next play), but it also demonstrates the layers and levels of racist attitudes, some of which we ourselves might not even be aware of.
The doubling of the cast in Yellow Face is also a clever conceit, as many of the actors play a number of roles and are often required to shift race and gender; they all manage the swift role-changes well. It might have been interesting had Hwang pushed the casting question a bit further: he’s successfully made the point that we are not blind to race in real life, but we should be. Does this then mean that we should be blind to race in the theatre? But Hwang has given us a comedy that succeeds on a number of levels: we are shown the pitfalls of political correctness and can appreciate that this offers no real answers or solutions to the tricky question of race, and we are encouraged to think deeply, not just about race and our attitudes towards it and those of society, but also about identity and the self, and how we define who we are.