“Yellow Face” written by David Henry Hwang, produced by Jeff Mikoni and directed by Jon Jon Johnson is presently playing at Silver Spring Stage in Silver Spring, Maryland until February 1, 2020. “Yellow Face” was originally produced by the Center Theatre Group and opened in May 2007 at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and off-Broadway at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in December, 2007. It won an Obie award for Playwriting and was a Pulitzer Finalist. Hwang did win a Tony Award writing for “M. Butterfly.”
“Yellow Face” is on the surface a farce, but it makes some strong social statements about race, in this case, about the Asian-American community in particular. The actors all play several roles as it looks at the American entertainment community as well as mores of the Asian-American community. The main character is loosely based on Hwang and takes a look at his own family relationships. The plot is also lightly based on real historical facts. Hwang was very vocal about his objections to casting a Caucasian as an Asian in “Miss Saigon,” and the political investigation in “Yellow Face” is based on the real case of Wen Ho Lee who was charged with stealing nuclear secrets for the Chinese government in 1999. (Lee was later exonerated of all by one minor charge. Lee received a large settlement from the government, and the federal judge on the case and President Clinton apologized for denying him bail and placing him in solitary confinement.)
The leading character, DHH, (Diego Maramba), is for the most part an autobiographical portrait of the playwright. Many of the other characters are based on people in his life, and the events either happened to the playwright or happened during the time frame of the show (the 1990’s-early 2000’s) to Hwang, his family or were national news events. However, the premise is partially fictional. Hwang writes a play several years after his success with “M. Butterfly” called “Face Value.” (That is true.) It also came shortly after he became very vocal about the casting of “Miss Saigon.” As he and his producers try to cast an attractive male of Asian ancestry in the leading role, they become frustrated finding the right actor. Finally, they cast an actor, Marcus G. Dahlman (Ramtin Vaziri), who they mistakenly think is Asian because he was in a play about Japanese-American soldiers. However, his character was the only Caucasian in the show. Once he is cast, there is no turning back. DHH tries desperately to have the press and, even, the Asian-American community think Dahlman is at least partially Asian. Dahlman becomes so entrenched in the Asian-American community (and also sees his career take off) that he changes his name to Marcus Gee and let’s people think he is part Asian. Complications come into the picture when the United States Government starts investigating connections between Chinese-Americans in particular, and Asian-Americans in general, and the People’s Republic of China. (This sweep in reality included Hwang’s father who actually was a banker being investigated.)
There are many characters in this show. The supporting actors play several roles. Johnson uses several devices to do this. One is through costuming done with the help of the costume designs of Stephenie Yee. The other is by having the actors pop their heads out of several small doors or windows. (For those of us who can remember “Laugh-In,” it is similar to that.) The actor identifies who they are playing, especially when they are playing real people, like Senator Fred Thompson. It is a clever way to handle all the quick changes of personae.
For me, however, it is the interpersonal scenes between the characters that work best and help develop insight into their motives. The scenes between DHH and his father (Edgar Ferrufino) are humorous and tender. We see a very strong bond of love and respect between the two. The first scene between them when DHH is trying to get his career back on track is full of laughs and pathos. HYH, the father, is thrilled that during the “Miss Saigon” controversy Charlton Heston mentioned (in a scathing message in the news) his son David.
Also memorable is the final scene between DHH and Marcus Gee (Dahlman). Even though David is a figment of DHH’s imagination, he, like many characters, is still part of Hwang’s psyche. It helps us understand the conflict Hwang had in casting “Face Value” and his feelings to white America.
Even the scene between DHH and the Announcer (Erica Smith) who is plays a reporter for the New York Times called in the program, Name Withheld, is full of real conflict and anger. It reveals Hwang’s mixed feeling to the press who were both his exalters and his nemesis. The reporter is theatrically used to reveal the deep-seated racism that exists even in the liberal media.
Johnson, who is Asian-American, handles these aspects of the show with the eyes of a person who has walked the walk. It allows the audience to realize that under this humor are real people whose lives are very affected by the views of white American, especially, but not only, in the entertainment industry.
“Yellow Face” will make you laugh, but it will also make you look inside yourself to see your own prejudices and false perceptions.
The performance by Maramba as DHH makes us feel we are really watching the playwright. He is very convincing, again, most effectively in the scenes with his father and Marcus.
Vaziri makes Marcus a very sympathetic character despite the fact that he uses a falsehood to propel his career. He talks tenderly of the Chinese village singers who join in song every night (at least when the tourists are there) in music that goes back to the days of Marco Polo’s journeys on the Silk Road.
As DHH’s father, Ferrufino, does well in playing a man who is probably a few decades older than he is. Ferrufino make HYH both funny, cagey and dignified. HYH is a man who loves, not just America, but American ideals. He dreamed of being Jimmy Stewart as he grew up in China. When his country of naturalization turns on him, he is crushed both spiritually and physically which Ferrufino does skillfully.
Krystle Cruz plays the love interest of DHH and Marcus Gee, Leah Anne Cho. Her scenes with both men show her love for the latter and her conflicts with dealing with her role in white American society as an Asian-American.
Smith is the Announcer and is always on stage where she plays a very impartial character until she also plays the N.Y. Times reporter. Her scene with Maramba is taut and full of underlying tensions. The actors play it like a chess game each one trying to succeed with his own gambit.
Joe Tran plays BD Wong (the real actor and star from “M. Butterfly) and other roles. He transitions nicely from the young handsome actor to the student activist to Wen Ho Lee.
Also giving fine performances are Omar LaTiri in several roles including Stuart Ostrow and Madelyn Farris as the real actress, Jane Krakowski who appeared in “Face Value” among her other roles.
The set by Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden is visually stunning. Not only does she have these little doors that open and close, but the backdrops are covered with pieces of script reflecting the events of the play. The furniture is sparse but functional, for example, using a file cabinet to hold props that the actors can easily retrieve keep the action flowing.
Venus Gulbranson’s Lighting Design conveys some of the starkness of the audition room for “Face Values,” and when we have the confrontations between Lee and the FBI and DHH and the reporter, we feel like we are in an interrogation room. It is an eerie but extraordinary effect.
Hope Villanueva’s Sound Design is also effective in creating both an Asian and 1990’s feeling. I did wish the opening music had been a little lower as I had trouble hearing the actors over it. Later on, that seemed corrected.
As usual, Silver Spring Stage has brought us an intriguing play that uses some fine creative newcomers along with seasoned veterans. “Yellow Face” will make you laugh, but it will also make you look inside yourself to see your own prejudices and false perceptions. It is a play that should be seen not only by Asian-Americans but all of us who mix-up culture with politics and forget that the historical path of Asians in America has had many roadblocks.
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes with an Intermission.