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March 27, 2017 | by  | in Theatre |
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Yellow Face

David Henry Hwang is an acclaimed US playwright who lives in New York and who wrote the play Yellow Face. Confusingly, he is also the lead character.

Semi-autobiographical, Yellow Face covers the middling period of Hwang’s (Alex Rabina) career when, fresh from the success of his play M. Butterfly, he criticises the 1991 Broadway rendition of Miss Saigon for casting Jonathan Pryce (a white actor — incidentally, now, the High Sparrow in Game of Thrones…) as the half Vietnamese, half French, hustler Tran Van Dinh. Hwang’s critique of yellow face in Miss Saigon becomes the focal point for his new play, Face Value. The irony of Yellow Face comes as Hwang, in his search for the perfect Asian male actor — of which none seem to exist, perhaps due to the tendency of the theatre industry to typecast them into minor roles — accidentally hires actor Marcus G. Dahlman (James Cain), who is white.

To draw back slightly, the version of the play I watched was performed at Whitireia. It consisted of an all New Zealand cast, seven in total. The stage was assembled from white sheets of wood and was centred in a dark space, reminiscent of a school hall. A yellow rectangle, crooked, and broken by the left backstage entrance, offered the only colour on the minimalist set. The broken rectangle was a point of passage for the actors who passed through it and onto the stage, often, in the process, stepping into a new guise.

For this was a play where few identities were stable. The actors, aside from leads Rabina as Hwang and Cain as Dahlman, morphed through an array of supporting roles. To capture the bustling energy of the Miss Saigon controversy and the heavily publicised world of Broadway, the other five actors, in deft displays of voice acting, would slip seamlessly into the roles of theatre critics, talk show hosts, commentators, senators, news reporters, etc. They also played a range of supporting characters that buffered the main narrative of Hwang and Dahlman. A particular standout was Benjamin Teh, who played Hwang’s father Henry, a banker targeted by racist Republicans for allegedly influencing US politics, and the Taiwanese-American nuclear scientist, Wen Ho Lee, who was racially profiled by the US Department of Justice and wrongfully held in solitary confinement for nine months on the charge of having stolen nuclear secrets on behalf of the Chinese government.

And it was with Teh’s performance as Henry and Wen Ho Lee, two characters for which ethnicity is an axis of oppression, that the play encountered the troubling nature of identity — of the inability of shedding one’s face. For all it joked with the poststructuralist upending of rigid categorisations — white guy (James Cain) playing a white guy (Marcus G. Dahlman) playing an Asian guy (Marcus G.) — the play never lets you forget that the categories of race exist and define existence. The actual border between being white and being asian, as Dahlman’s amorphous identity and heritage (Hwang attempts to pass him off as Eurasian by pointing to the fact his Father is a Siberian Jew) suggests, isn’t locatable but clearly it exists.

The yellow square on the back of the set stands out clearly from the white background. Yet it is also broken, and in the movement of the play the rigid border between yellow and white is crossed by the actors — for the benefit of the audience, for this is theatre, and in theatre things can be thrown into the light of artifice and illuminated.

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