When the London production of the musical “Miss Saigon” came to Broadway in 1990, the casting caused a rift in American theater circles. Jonathan Pryce, a white man, was slated to reprise his leading role as the Engineer, a French-Vietnamese pimp. In originating the part, he used eye prosthetics and skin darkening cream, to the outrage of many.
At the time, David Henry Hwang, the Tony Award-winning playwright behind “M. Butterfly,” wrote a letter to the Actors’ Equity Association protesting the portrayal of a Eurasian character by a white actor.
“I had dared to suppose that the yellowface days of Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu had been relegated forever to the closets of historical kitsch,” Hwang wrote.
Those words resonated with actor Stan Kang when he read the line in the script for Hwang’s semi-autobiographical “Yellow Face,” in which Kang portrays the playwright. Just a couple weeks before the show opened at Theatre J, Kang joined other Asian-Americans on social media to denounce the Jan. 13 episode of “How I Met Your Mother,” which featured the all-white cast portraying stock Asian characters in kimonos and chopstick buns.
“Here we are in 2014, and yet here’s the Fu Manchu mustache, here are the Oriental girls who are supposed to be desirable,” Kang says. “If you were going to make fun of kung fu movies, why not give the opportunities to Asian-American actors?”
“Yellow Face,” a fictionalized account of Hwang’s role in the “Miss Saigon” dispute and the flop of a play he wrote in response, asks similar questions: How do racial dynamics play out in the theater world? When is a fictional representation realistic enough? What does it mean these days to be Asian, American or both?
The politics of race in casting are nothing new to Kang, who is Korean-American (the fact that he’s playing a Chinese-American man adds another layer to matters of racial authenticity). This is the first stage role in a decade for Kang, the full-time executive director of Educational Theatre Company in Arlington. But even at the peak of his acting career, Kang found his prospects limited.
“Yellow Face” director Natsu Onoda Power, who was born and raised in Japan, says Asian-American actors often end up playing either explicitly Asian characters or characters that were written as white but cast as Asian to make a point.
The son of Korean parents who encouraged him to assimilate into American culture, Kang mines his understanding of the second-generation immigrant experience to portray Hwang’s struggles with his father, who came to the U.S. from China.
“I thought, at first, the show was sort of a farce or satire about race, about what it means to be politically correct in theater,” he says. “In working on the show, I’ve changed my opinion. To me, it’s starting to feel more and more like a love story to [Hwang’s] father, a tribute to his father and his father’s values.”
Now that Kang is a father himself, he views Asian representation in media — whether it’s a lack of acting opportunities or the cultural appropriation of “How I Met Your Mother” — with an even more critical eye.
“Growing up, the only [Asian] people we saw were on “Star Trek” or “M*A*S*H,” and almost never did one of the Asians have a speaking part,” he says. “When you don’t see your own faces on television … you never think, ‘Oh, I could become an actor,’ or ‘These stories are about me.’ ”
David Henry Hwang’s 2007 play “Yellow Face” is a semi-autobiographical story of race, art and family. After publicly condemning the casting of a white actor in an Asian role in “Miss Saigon,” Hwang (Stan Kang) mistakenly does the same thing while casting a show he’s written. As Hwang tries to conceal his error, his Chinese immigrant dad — a successful banker — comes under federal investigation, forcing Hwang to confront his own identity issues.
Theatre J, 1529 16th St. NW; through Feb. 23, $15-$65; 202-777-3210. (Dupont Circle)