Describing “Yellow Face” as a deeply personal manifesto about Asian American identity certainly runs the risk of my sounding as if it’s a play for an audience of ethnologists. So let me quickly add that this is a far more entertaining work than that — and thanks to Natsu Onoda Power, a director of exceptional energy and visual stylishness, it is mostly a delight.
David Henry Hwang’s 2007 script, vigorously mounted at the DC Jewish Community Center by Theater J, is not without snags: The play is by turns acidly funny, insightful and provocative but also at times arch and sanctimonious. Even as it compels you to examine your own assumptions about ethnicity and how it’s represented in art, “Yellow Face” is also more self-consciously analyzing the motives and attitudes of its protagonist, a dramatist who’s earned plaudits for plays exploring how we view each other through lenses of sexuality and race.
That character happens to be named David Henry Hwang. Making yourself the exceedingly flawed hero of your own piece is a dodgy enterprise. For though the play abounds in self-deprecation, it also succumbs to what comes across as self-serving score-settling. This becomes a distraction in the second act, when the piece takes an awkward detour from its satirical main thrust to delve, laboriously, into the roots of a federal investigation in the 1990s of Hwang’s late father, the chairman of a bank that did business with China.
I’d have to embed a flow chart here to do full justice to the thesis developed by the playwright, author of the Tony Award-winning “M. Butterfly.” His linkage of injustices takes into account issues including the controversial casting of Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce as the Eurasian fixer in the original “Miss Saigon,” to the murky case of American scientist Wen Ho Lee, accused in the 1990s of stealing secrets for China. The mountain of detail flowing from these various concerns fills “Yellow Face” almost to bursting.
Still, as revealed by Power’s bracing production, with its well-nigh-perfect cast, “Yellow Face” remains for much of the time a tonic. Many theatergoers will enjoy it for its jaundiced take on play-making, as will others interested in the cultural minefields navigated by a leading Asian American writer. For Hwang has found a leavening agent that binds the conceits and holds the whole evening together: the story of a white actor — marvelously portrayed by Rafael Untalan — who is hired to play the starring role in a Hwang play, under the mistaken belief that he is Asian American.
Just as an audience is held by the opera-size masquerade at the heart of “M. Butterfly” — wherein a French diplomat falls in love with a Chinese man living as a woman — we are diverted by the irreverent charade that preoccupies “Yellow Face.” The play affirms an idea that categorizing someone primarily by where they come from is a recipe for farce as well as disaster. And sure enough, that tendency to judge even blows up in the face of Hwang the character.
Like so many actors, Untalan’s Marcus G. Dahlman just wants to work. So when after a fruitless search for a star of Asian background Hwang and the desperate producers of a play called “Face Value” come across Marcus, he keeps his mouth shut. They cast him without investigating whether he is indeed Asian — a point of sensitivity in the theater world, in the aftermath of a campaign that Hwang helped organize, protesting Pryce’s casting in “Miss Saigon.” (Hwang mixes fiction and reality here, for “Face Value” was indeed a failed comedy of his that closed on Broadway in 1993 before opening night; I’ll leave it to you to discover Marcus’s origins, in every sense of the term.) It is Hwang’s anguish over his own complicated reactions to Marcus — who embraces his Asian identity to the point where he adopts the ambiguous stage name of Marcus Gee — that drives him, and us, to a fuller appreciation of how daunting are the issues raised here.
Power, a Georgetown professor whose exhilarating aesthetic was most vibrantly on display in Studio Theatre’s history-of-animation performance piece, 2012’s “Astro Boy and the God of Comics,” reveals herself to be as adept at a play of rich language and exposition as she was with one devoted to the creation of cartoon images. With wizardly assistance from the projections designer Jared Mezzocchi and the set designer Luciana Stecconi, Power provides some dazzling visual accents for Hwang’s words.
The file drawers of varying shapes and sizes that form the backdrop on the Goldman Theater stage become modular screens on which Mezzocchi flashes embroidering images: shimmering Chinese rivers, scenery from famous Broadway musicals and most cleverly, clips of classic movies into which Hwang’s cinema-loving dad (the beguiling Al Twanmo) fantasizes himself. The director seems to have breathed fire, too, into her first-rate acting ensemble, each of whom plays a variety of roles and all of whom deserve to be named: Brandon McCoy, Sue Jin Song, Mark Hairston, Jacob Yeh and Tonya Beckman.
Oh, wait. One more name: Stan Kang, who plays Hwang and is so affably (and neurotically) convincing that you’re not entirely sure he isn’t David Henry Hwang all the time.
Yes, the dramatist does write himself into some difficult corners in “Yellow Face.” But he manages to enjoyably write his way out of many of them, too. And with Power in command of his prose, even the play’s blind alleys become worthwhile stops on our learning curve.
by David Henry Hwang. Directed by Natsu Onoda Power. Set, Luciana Stecconi; lighting, Dan Covey; sound, Chris Baine; costumes, Debra Kim Sivigny; projections, Jared Mezzocchi; scenic artist, Carolyn Hampton; dramaturgy, Stephen Spotswood. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Tickets, $35-$65. Through Feb. 23 at DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. Visit www.theaterj.org