Pulitzer-Prize winner and playright David Henry Hwang‘s Yellow Face is being restaged at the National Theatre’s Shed under the direction of Alex Sims, and it is a fast-paced, deft deconstruction of race and culture which is not afraid to laugh at itself.
The play is both semi-autobiographical and fictional, and focuses on the very real trials and tribulations of life as an Asian American dramaturge who uses his work to explore and expose racism and sexism. It opens with protests at the casting of a white British actor, Jonathan Pryce, in the role of an Eurasian male lead in Miss Saigon, a white actor in ‘yellow face’. When DHH, the main character and playright, deftly acted by Kevin Shen, creates another play, Face Value, in response, he accidentally casts Marcus (Ben Starr), a white actor, as the main Asian lead, and then has to pass Marcus off as a ‘Siberian Jew’.
Ironically, Marcus has great success as an ‘Asian’ and quickly rises to become a role model for the Asian community, even ‘reinventing’ the King and I as a “vision of multiculturalism”. Various trials and tribulations ensue, not all of them comedic. There is a witch hunt against the ‘Yellow peril’, driven by a scaremongering journalist (Christy Meyer), and a Chinese-born scientist, Wen Ho Lee (David Yip) is arrested and held in solitary confinement although he is innocent. It is here that David Henry Hwang’s writing comes into the fore, bringing these issues to light without being heavy-handed or preachy.
Although Yellow Face does not, in the end, resolve any of the issues of race or culture, it certainly makes one question, through comedy, what these concepts actually mean. This ‘mockumentary’ has bite.
Yellow Face continues at the National Theatre’s Shed. on the South Bank, until 24 May. Tickets are £12 and £20 and may be booked by calling 020 7452 3000 or on the National Theatre website. Londonist saw this production courtesy of a complimentary ticket.