After David Henry Hwang became the first Asian American to win a Tony award for his play M. Butterfly, his new positioning within the American theatre world became difficult to navigate. Now an unintentional spokesperson for Asian American theatre-makers, the next few years of Hwang’s life and career were complicated, to say the least.
Beginning in 1988, Yellow Face moves through Hwang’s (Shan-Ree Tan) involvement in the protest against Miss Saigon’s casting of its Broadway production in 1990, the flop of his next play Face Value, and the anti-Chinese atmosphere in the United States that saw the imprisonment of Wen Ho Lee (Jonathan Chan) and the investigation of Hwang’s father (Chan) for possible fraud in collusion with China. Part memoir, part fiction, part David and part someone else, the meta-narrative follows the two story lines of David’s relationship with his father and how David conceptualises his identity as a writer, as an American, and as a child of Chinese immigrants as well as exploring the fictional story of Marcus G (Adam Marks), a white man who, with the help of David, accidentally becomes an Asian American icon.
This production could not come at a more pressing time. After being delayed by COVID-19 in 2020, Yellow Face taps into current conversations around the rise of anti-Asian sentiment globally, and specifically in the US, that has lead to an increase in hate crimes and violence against Asian Americans. Patterns David recognises in the anti-Asian rhetoric of the 1990s and early 2000s could have been pulled from recent sound bites of American politicians discussing the “Chinese flu”.
At the same time, Hwang’s script and his intimate examination of his own identity amongst the melee of political and media circuses is complicated and honest, fully fleshing out the real people affected by racism and hatred. It’s also very funny. From Hwang’s relationship to his “all publicity is good publicity” father to the Frankenstein-esque creation of Marcus G to the cringy conversations around race in audition rooms, both the commentary and the characters are engaging on many levels.
Tasnim Hossain’s direction of this fast-paced, fluid script was expert and her management of the emotional beats in such a fractured narrative was exceptional. There wasn’t a moment that the production seemed to drag or lose focus, which demonstrates a keen story-telling ability. The set design by Ruru Zhu was a striking strip of red and a series of pillars that the cast used as tables, chairs, barricades, and podiums. The costuming of cool grey suits was interesting formal and kept the colour palette simple and elegant. Lucia Haddad’s lighting design was equally clean and sophisticated with subtle changes that seamlessly blended the scenes together.
It is necessary to praise the impressive performances of the ensemble cast who juggled countless characters and accents with ease. Chan was a crowd favourite as David’s father and Marks certainly nailed the clueless white guy but Idam Sondhi, Whitney Richards, Kian Pitman, and Helen Kim created a vibrant, dynamic cast of characters that spanned reality and imagination. Every one should be commended for their commitment and outstanding flexibility.
Tan, in one of his meatiest roles to date, took the enormity of David Henry Hwang in stride. He was funny and compelling, charming and flawed, and he created a deeply engaging central figure to a huge range of themes and conversations. In particular, in this production Tan demonstrated an open, genuine humour not often afforded to him in previous roles and which was deftly handled.
Hossain and Dinosaurus Production’s production of Yellow Face is of a very high professional standard and demonstrates a strong group of theatre-makers capable of taking on big works. In Australia’s current cultural climate, this kind of nuanced attention to identity, race, and craft couldn’t be more valuable.
Yellow Face is running at Kings Cross Theatre from April 23rd – May 8th
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