May 13 2014
Review: A much acclaimed US play deals head on with the issue of ethnic casting and was born out of the furore of a Broadway production of Miss Saigon…
By Suman Bhuchar
“YELLOWFACE” at the National Theatre (Shed) venue is an entertaining satire with rapid quick fire dialogue that looks at the question of the casting of ‘white’ actors playing ‘Asian American’ actors in the US.
It is written by the award winning author, David Henry Hwang (DHH) and is drawn from his own experiences of protests against the casting of the actor Jonathan Pryce in an Eurasian role of the ‘Engineer’ in the musical “Miss Saigon” by producer Cameron Mackintosh on Broadway (1991).
Coincidentally a new version of “Miss Saigon” opened in London on May 12 at the Prince Edward Theatre – this time with Eurasian actors in the lead roles.
When the protest originally began Mackintosh supposedly referred to it a ‘tempest in an Oriental teapot’, and refused to back down from his choice of cast. A furore followed, with Pryce still ending up playing the role.
This when Pryce spoke to Terry Wogan about the original brouhaha.[youtube width=”500″ height=”300″ video_id=”hl6jv-_a_Ig”]
Hwang was a key player in these protests and then later he wrote a play about this experience called “Face Value” (1993) which flopped but ended up inspiring “Yellowface” (originally performed in New York in 2007) and won its writer an Obie (Off Broadway Theatre) Award.
This production at the National Theatre is presented by a new company: Special Relationship Productions, led by dynamic young producer actor, Kevin Shen, (who plays the lead role of Hwang) and an actor, Lucy Fenton and was originally performed at Park Theatre in Finsbury last year.
The show features seven actors, including Gemma Chan and Davina Perera who all play 88 characters.
The first half focuses on the protests around the musical and how the writer DHH then inadvertently ends up casting a ‘white’ actor, Marcus G Dahlman (Ben Starr) in his play, “Face Value” and then tries to create a ‘Siberian Jew’ link to make his credentials appear as ‘properly ethnic’.
This is because Equity rules in America prevent producers from asking the ethnicity of the actor auditioning for any role.
Much hilarity ensue in the scene where Perera (playing the casting agent, Miles Newman) tries to ascertain the background of the actor, sparked by the comment, “I can tell an Asian when I see one!”
Later when DHH learns that he has cast someone from the wrong ethnic background – he tries to find a way of getting rid of him, whilst at the same time the Dahlman character – tries to become even more Asian than the Asians leading to accusations of him being an ‘ethnic tourist’.
The show raises thought provoking questions about the conundrum and complexity relating to ‘ethnic casting’, including such perplexing lines as: “So long as I can help Marcus pass off as an Asian, I can still fire him for being white.”
The second half of this play is a bit darker and looks more broadly at the demonisation and persecution of Chinese Americans for supposedly not being ‘loyal enough Americans’ and draws specifically from the real life examples of a Taiwanese American nuclear scientist, Dr Wen Ho Lee and DHH’s father, Henry Hwang (played here by David Yip) a self made millionaire, who opened the first Asian American Bank – the Far East National Bank – and who is striving to achieve the American dream and sees himself as a ‘Jimmy Stewart’ figure.
They, along with Dahlman, end up being investigated by Senator Fred Thompson for basically identifying business opportunities in China and he later dies of cancer.
This leads to the hilarious denouement where the Dahlman character has to ‘out’ himself as non-Asian in order to save the other persecuted ‘real Asians’.
In an interview given to ‘The Washington Post’, DHH said: “The play isn’t about what race you pretend to be, as much as it’s your sense of self – your identity. And identity is comprised of a number of different things – race, ethnicity are a part of that, but that’s not the answer. That doesn’t define you in and of itself. It’s becomes about a larger topic than ‘yellow face’ as such.”
There is more from the writer in ‘The Guardian’ discussing his actions.
This is a subversive and entertaining play directed by Alex Sims and performed with energy by the cast. It is a ‘must see’ for anyone interested in the politics of race and culture.
Since the show has opened at the National, the actor, Jonathan Pryce has commented on his role (in the original production in London and Broadway): “I briefly wore prosthetics on my eyes during the opening weeks of ‘Miss Saigon’ but abandoned them when I realised that in a theatre the size of Drury Lane no one noticed them anyway and were unnecessary for the character. I never wore them on Broadway. As for the suggestion that I had a jaundiced complexion, I never wore yellowface – merely an enhancing tan. It was a musical after all!
“All arguments that were had at the time of the New York production were valid and had a positive outcome in raising awareness of the serious issue of the lack of blind casting in the theatre. In this country the RSC and the National led the way in this, but much work still needs to be done – especially in television and film.
“I personally received huge support from the New York acting community for my casting as the mixed race character of the Engineer, but when I got a first night card from Charlton Heston which was a photo of himself made up as Fu Man Chu signed ‘With best wishes from one yellowface to another’ I did feel that he had somehow missed the point ! I wish the play at The Shed every success”
ACV rating: 5/5
Main pic: David Yip and Kevin Shen by Simon Annand
- Yellowface runs at the Shed, National Theatre until 24 May-Tickets: £20 (£12) Box Office: 020 7 452 3000
- More on this story including British-Chinese reaction
- To read more on the history of ‘yellowface’ (ie white actors – playing Asian or Oriental roles) click here.