Yellow Face at the Shed Theatre
Acclaimed playwright David Henry Hwang’s play Yellow Face is an entertaining and thought-provoking analysis of racial inequality and the American dream from the point of view of its citizens of Asian provenance. The writer humorously fictionalises his own difficult relationship with the show business industry, as well as his fight for greater opportunities for Asian Americans in Hollywood.
Kevin Shen, in his National Theatre debut, sympathetically portrays Hwang who at the outset of the play has just found success with his play M Butterfly. Following a telephone call with his father – a firm believer in America as the land of opportunity, where anybody can be who they want to be – he decides to write a follow-up to his hit. In this, an Asian male – in Victor/Victoria style – plays a role designed for a Caucasian, revealing his true identity in the end, as well as spelling out Hollywood’s stilted racial stereotyping. However, things go awry when Hwang realises that the Asian he has chosen for the lead role – Marcus Gee – is in fact Marcus G Dahlman: a white man. In order to avoid embarrassment, he decides to pass him off as a Siberian Jew, and in so doing, unwittingly creates a “hero” for the Asian American community, thus undermining his own efforts for them. One day, Dahlman is contacted by the FBI: they want to know about his true country of origin…
The play’s seven actors all play several small roles, each embodying a moment or an encounter with friend or foe in the show business community, amusingly drawing upon caricatures of the types one inevitably meets in Tinseltown. David Yip is marvellous as Hwang’s father – founder of a successful bank in California, funded with Chinese money – who is sucked up into the Marcus Gee scandal. Also brilliant is Ben Starr as the corn-fed Asian imposter, and Gemma Chan who among her roles plays Hwang’s ex-girlfriend Leah. Christy Meyer, who plays the Announcer, is wonderful in an intense and beautifully written scene where she plays a mud-slinging reporter who threatens to ruin Hwang’s career.
Although risking early on to come off as a narcissistic review of the writer’s professional and personal trials and triumphs (similar to the Bob Fosse film All That Jazz), this play is in fact a sincere and incredibly funny examination of the struggles and racial discrimination that all ethnic minorities have to face in America today.
Photo: Simon Annand
Yellow Face is at The Shed until 24th May 2014. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.