Hwang's 'Yellow Face' to Open in New York

Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang tackles American notions of race and art in his partly autobiographical new play. Yellow Face, which opens tonight in New York's Public Theater, is a comedy with serious themes about race and the politics of identity. Hwang is the only Asian-American ever to win the Tony Award for best play, for M. Butterfly in 1988.

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A play that opens tonight explores some of the same themes as the presidential debate last night. The debate was translated into Spanish, and a major issue was immigration. The play comes from an Asian-American writer, and it explores questions of race and identity politics.

The playwright is David Henry Hwang, the only Asian-American ever to win the Tony Award for best play with "M. Butterfly." In his latest work, in New York, the lead character is a playwright named David Henry Hwang.

Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN: The stage is bare. The cast, an ensemble of Asian and white actors, and much of the style is mock documentary.

(Soundbite of play, "Yellow Face")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) New York Times, July 13th, 1990.

Unidentified Woman (Actress): (As character) "Miss Saigon" casting protested. Asian-Americans have complained about the casting of a Caucasian in one of the show's principal Asian roles. David Henry Hwang, the Tony Award-winning playwright of "M. Butterfly," registered his protest in a letter sent to Actors' Equity.

Mr. HOON LEE (Stage Actor): (As D.H.H.) I have dared to suppose that the yellow-faced days of Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu had been relegated forever to the closets of historical kitsch. Mr. Pryce is an excellent actor, but I would be equally upset were he cast as an African-American character like Boy Willie in August Wilson's play, "The Piano Lesson."

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) Cameron Mackintosh, producer, "Miss Saigon."

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (As Cameron Mackintosh) This is the tempest in an oriental teapot.

LUNDEN: And so begins David Henry Hwang's "Yellow Face," a play which freely mixes real and fictional events into a kind of funhouse ride that explores the meaning of identity. Is it ethnic? Is it personal? And who is that person that we present to the world as ourselves?

Hwang says his own role as a leading spokesperson for the Asian-American community during the "Miss Saigon" controversy seemed like a good starting point for a play.

Mr. DAVID HENRY HWANG (Playwright, "Yellow Face"): Ever since then, I guess I've been trying to figure out how can we talk about some of these issues in a more nuanced way, and also more expansive? Not just about what it means to play Asian on stage, but what does it mean to play Asian in life? How do we play race off the stage? Is it possible for an Asian person to be in "Yellow Face?"

LUNDEN: So Hwang decided to put himself in the center of this riddle, and has created a protagonist known by the initials D.H.H.

Mr. HWANG: D.H.H. leads the protest against the casting of Jonathan Pryce in "Miss Saigon," then inadvertently casts a white actor as the Asian lead in his own follow-up to "M. Butterfly" called "Face Value," because he incorrectly believes that this white actor is part Asian. And when he finds out that this is not the case, that he's actually done the exact same thing that he's been so vehement about protesting, he tries to cover up the fact to protect his reputation as an Asian-American role model. Then a lot of things happened.

LUNDEN: One of the things that happens is that Marcus, the white actor, ends up becoming politically active in the Asian-American community, much to D.H.H.'s consternation.

(Soundbite of play, "Yellow Face")

Mr. LEE: (As D.H.H.) I was an Asian-American role model back when you were still a Caucasian.

Unidentified Man #4 (Actor): (As Marcus) Dave, come on. Is this a popularity contest?

Mr. LEE: (As D.H.H.) No, I'm not in a popularity contest with you.

Unidentified Man #4: (as Marcus) This about collective empowerment. Agreed?

Mr. LEE: (As D.H.H.) So, that's just so easy for you to say.

Unidentified Man #4: What?

Mr. LEE: (As D.H.H.) You come in here with that face of yours, call yourself Asian, everyone falls at your feet. But you don't have to live as an Asian every day of your life. No, no, you can just skim the cream, you ethnic tourist.

Ms. LEIGH SILVERMAN (Director, "Yellow Face"): The play is about authenticity and it's about identity, and yet we have an actor coming out pretending to be David Henry Hwang.

LUNDEN: Leigh Silverman is the director of "Yellow Face."

Ms. SILVERMAN: So in its essence, it is already disingenuous to some extent. And what we ask people to believe in in the play is that everything that you're seeing is true, and everything that you're seeing is theater. And it - that it really leaves it up to the audience to decide. And I think that is part of the conception of the play, with many actors playing many different roles of different races and different genders. I think it's part of the idea of anyone can do anything, everyone can do anything.

LUNDEN: One of the actors who plays multiple roles is Francis Jue. He says the cast has worked hard to make each part they play instantly recognizable.

Mr. FRANCIS JUE (Actor): Without any costume changes, without any scene changes, people can identify you right away. And I think that's part of the fun of the play and actually part of the point, too, is that along the way, all of us make these decisions about who we want to present to the world. And we all make decisions about what is authentically who we are that we don't show to the world. So we have to, as actors in this play, show both of those things at the same time, which is really exciting.

LUNDEN: One role Jue plays is the playwright's father, a Chinese immigrant, successful banker and true believer in the American dream.

Here, he's talking about "Miss Saigon" with his son in a telephone call.

(Soundbite of play, "Yellow Face")

Mr. JUE: (As D.H.H.'s Father) A young Vietnamese girl who gives up her baby to find a better life in America.

Mr. LEE: (As D.H.H.) Actually, she dies.

Mr. JUE (As D.H.H.'s Father): What?

Mr. LEE: (As D.H.H.) The girl, she kills herself. It's her baby who finds a better life in America.

Mr. JUE: (As D.H.H.'s father) That's even more beautiful.

Mr. LEE: (As D.H.H.) It's "Madame Butterfly" set in Vietnam.

Mr. JUE: (As D.H.H.'s father): Dave, you should do something like that. Is that what your new play is about, "Madame Butterfly" in Vietnam?

Mr. LEE: (As D.H.H.) How could I possibly - it's already been done.

Mr. JUE: (As D.H.H.'s Father) See, I'm just so ignorant about these things.

Mr. LEE: (As D.H.H.) Besides, I already wrote a play criticizing "Madame Butterfly."

Mr. JUE: (As D.H.H.'s Father) What play was that?

Mr. LEE: (As D.H.H.) "M. Butterfly."

LUNDEN: As comical as the first act of "Yellow Face" is, the second act gets much darker, as it explores some of what Hwang calls the Chinese-American hysteria scandals of the late 1990s, including the Wen Ho Lee espionage trial, and even David Henry Hwang's father being investigated for allegedly laundering money from the Chinese government. For both his father and playwright David Henry Hwang, this period became a very personal and traumatic experience.

Mr. HWANG: I've become more and more aware of the degree to which this is really a play that, in may ways, I'm writing kind of a tribute to my father, which was certainly not something that was clear to me when I finished the first draft.

LUNDEN: And director Leigh Silverman says it's the collision between the personal and the political that makes "Yellow Face" ultimately such a powerful experience.

Ms. SILVERMAN: At the end of the play, Hoon Lee, the actor playing David Henry Wang, says it was my father's dream that he could be Jimmy Stewart, a world where he could be Jimmy Stewart and even a white guy can be an Asian. And I think that that is a very profound sentiment.

LUNDEN: "Yellow Face" opens tonight at the Public Theatre off Broadway.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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