This post has been updated.
Theater J and local director Natsu Onoda Power recently tackled playwright David Henry Hwang’s 2007 script “Yellow Face” and produced an “acidly funny” play that also does some self-serving score-settling, according to Theater Critic Peter Marks. The play’s central character shares Hwang’s name and embodies some of his feelings about a high-profile Broadway casting controversy in the 90s.
Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce endured heavy criticism for starring as an Asian character in “Miss Saigon” and using bronzing cream and eye prosthetics to look the part. The scenario mushroomed into a war of words between those in the theater scene and the Asian American community. Hwang also voiced his disapproval by writing a play about mistaken racial identity called “Face Value” in 1993. The play was considered a failure by Hwang, but now serves as a premise and punch line for “Yellow Face,” now playing in Washington, D.C., through Feb. 23.
Hwang spoke to Style Blog about the play’s origins and its comedic voice in the conversation about race.
Q: In “Yellow Face” you interspersed fiction with true stories about you and your family, as well as the “Miss Saigon” controversy. What was behind your creative process?
DHH: It’s a memoir – a kind of unreliable memoir. The main character is named after me and based on me. There are some things in it that are true and there are some things in it that aren’t true. There is this kind of postmodern idea of playing with your own identity in the construct of yourself as the author.
The story of “Yellow Face” dates back to the “Miss Saigon” controversy in 1990. That was when I was involved in the big casting controversy. It got quite heated and became a culture war of last points. I came out of that feeling like it was hard to have an intelligent, nuanced discussion about some of these [racial] issues.
Q: You wrote the play “Yellow Face” 15 years later. Why do you think the play and the dialogue about “Miss Saigon” is still relevant today?
DHH: There was enough time that had passed that I could approach it with a little more distance and irony. Also, the world had changed sufficiently such that multiculturalism, which was a fairly new idea back in 1993 when we did “Face Value,” had become pretty accepted and pretty much a part of mainstream discourse, whether people like it or not. So, it was then time to look back on it and even be able to laugh at it in a way that may be have not been so possible 10 years previous.
Q: We live in a highly sensitive culture when it comes to race. The conversation is often reflective and serious. How and why did you use humor in your play to add to the dialogue?
DHH: That’s what I’m really proud of – that we can talk about race and people can laugh at it because we don’t have many opportunities in modern society where we can have a discussion about race and still feel comfortable enough to laugh. I just naturally tend to write humorously, and for me, it’s not an issue of trying to write lines that are funny. I don’t think that works. It’s having a situation that’s inherently comic and then trying to be truthful to the character in that situation. So for instance, the idea that [the main character] David Henry Hwang has mistakenly cast a white guy as an Asian character in his play. It’s funny. I don’t have to try and write funny lines. I just have to try write the characters as truthfully as possible in that comic situation.
Q: Many of the actors in your play changed gender or race depending on the characters that they played. How is this different to Miss Saigon’s original approach to casting and use of “Asian makeup”?
DHH: It’s the makeup to some extent but it’s also a question of employment. When Jonathan Pryce was cast as the Engineer in Miss Saigon, this was a big missed opportunity to give a leading role to an Asian or a mixed-race Asian actor. Caucasians already have about 80 percent of the roles [in theater]. The difference in “Yellow Face” is that we do have a mixed cast and we are using the casting situation to provide opportunities for a number of different races including Asian, and then within that, we can have some fun with being able to create a more ‘blind cast,’ world-on-stage that the play is positing, as a goal for the far future. I’m really happy that we were able to use [local actors], as well. That was really a commitment of Theater J and director Natsu Onoda Power. They really get credit for that.
It’s understandable that there are not many local Asian American actors. But aside from demographic figures, it is true that it’s discouraging for a lot of potential Asian actors to go into a profession where there are not that many roles that they have the opportunity to audition for. It’s probably doesn’t help that sometimes Asian parents are not that supportive for their kids going into the arts.
Q: What about yourself? How did you get into theater in college and continue with it until now?
DHH: As long as I got good grades in my major, I could do whatever I wanted in college. So, I wrote plays in my spare time. My senior year I wrote a play in my dorm called “FOB.” My dad said he wanted to take a look at my script and he saw a few swear words. He said, “I send you to a fancy school and your write this junk.” But then he also told my mom, we’re going to go up and see the play. If it’s good, we’ll encourage him, and if it’s bad we’ll tell him to stop. And fortunately, at the end of the performance in my dorm, he was in tears. I have to give him and my mom a lot of credit for being open minded for letting their eldest child to pursue being a playwright.
Q: There is a long history of stereotypes for Asians in pop culture and theater. Is it going away? What would you like to see in the future?
DHH: When I was a kid, Asians were seen as poor and uneducated. They were menial laborers. Now, if anything, we’re considered to have too much money and too much education. That’s an example of something that changes and becomes an object lesson. There’s no such thing as a good stereotype. The main thing about a stereotype is that it’s inhuman. You’re reducing somebody or a people into one or two characteristics, which makes them easier to demonize. But in terms of stereotypes that continue, I think the model minority stereotype has been around for a while now. If anything, that’s stronger now than it used to be. And, there’s the notion of Asians as perpetual foreigners. Most of the time it’s annoying, but it also has harmful consequences.
Q: How did you end up with the name “Yellow Face” for the play?
I think the name of the play is because of the “Miss Saigon” incident that kicks it off. The play tries to explore this term from a lot of different angles. You have a [white character], who’s playing an Asian in his life. And then you have the character [called David Henry Hwang], who by the end of the play, not really doing anything for his community, but is clinging to this image of being an Asian American role model.
The play isn’t about what race you pretend to be, as much as it’s your sense of self – your identity. And identity is comprised of a number of different things – race, ethnicity are a part of that, but that’s not the answer. That doesn’t define you in and of itself. It’s becomes about a larger topic than “yellow face” as such.