By Wayne Leung
Toronto’s Hart House Theatre in partnership with fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre Company presents Tony Award-winner David Henry Hwang’s semi-autobiographical play Yellow Face at the Hart House Theatre through March 12, 2011.
Playwright David Henry Hwang, winner of the 1988 Tony Award for Best Play for M. Butterfly, is no stranger to race and identity politics.
As is the case with many people of colour who succeed in a field where visible minorities are few and far between, Hwang has become a prominent, if sometimes unwitting, champion for equal opportunity as chronicled in his semi-autobiographical satire Yellow Face.
The play opens with the character of David Henry Hwang organizing a protest in response to the casting of Caucasian actor, Jonathan Pryce, in a lead Asian role in the musical Miss Saigon. Later in the play, Hwang himself mistakenly casts a Caucasian actor as the lead Asian character in his own play and tries to cover up his blunder by passing the actor off as “Eurasian.” Hilarity ensues.
Throughout the course of the play Hwang tackles some complex issues: identity politics, race and cultural identity, all issues that I can relate to in my own experience as the child of Chinese immigrants.
Growing up as an “Asian-Canadian” I never saw anybody who looked like me in the popular media, on film, stage or television. Omission and under-representation have a way of making you feel marginalized and invisible, like you don’t have a voice.
Even today, living in a thriving, multicultural city like Toronto, we haven’t come as far as we’d like to think we have. Just last year Maclean’s magazine published a shamefully xenophobic article questioning whether some Canadian universities had become “Too Asian?” And Toronto has a mayor who still cluelessly refers to Asians as “Orientals.”
The term “yellow face” refers to the casting of non-Asian actors into Asian roles. In the ‘70s David Carradine was cast as the lead of the TV series Kung Fu over Bruce Lee because the network felt that Americans would not accept an Asian in a lead role. Even as recently as last year director M. Night Shyamalan cast his Asian mythology-inspired movie The Last Airbender almost exclusively with Caucasian actors.
When it comes to equal opportunity casting, we also haven’t come very far in an industry that prides itself on being progressive: the theatre. Take a moment and try to list five examples of actors of Asian descent in leading roles in major, commercial theatre productions in Toronto in the past five years.
The roles are few and the ones that do exist are generally awful. It seems Asians are still only cast to shoot Ping-Pong balls out their ass (mail-order bride in Priscilla), pimp out their daughters (Bloody Mary in South Pacific) or weepily pine for their handsome white American soldiers (Miss Saigon); all roles that are offensive to varying degrees.
I recently asked a young commercial theatre producer why we don’t see more actors of Asian descent either playing roles written for Asians or colour-blind cast into other roles. He callously dismissed my concerns and refused to acknowledge there was any sort of under-representation bluntly stating, “the talent in the Asian community just doesn’t exist.”
While there may be some truth to his assessment I think there is also a refusal on his part to acknowledge his own latent prejudice and the institutionalized racism in the performing arts.
As you can see, the issues of race and identity are very personal and it’s easy for a discussion to become highly charged and emotional. It’s exactly this kind discussion we find at the center of Yellow Face.
Hwang’s script is a layered, thorough examination of the issues of race and identity politics. Alternating between funny, thought provoking and poignant, the script seems to challenge the skills of the cast and director Esther Jun.
On opening night the play’s first act felt a bit hit-and-miss. Cast members grappled with the difficulties of doubling a vast array of characters. The flow and pacing felt a bit off as the cast struggled to find the right rhythm for the performance.
The first act introduces the various characters and sets the context for the play but it seems unfocused. Fortunately, in the second act, the play transforms from a scattershot comedy of errors to become focused and plot-driven. The second act features great character development and political intrigue as well as some surprisingly tender moments.
Kristoffer Pedlar is a standout as Marcus, the mistakenly-cast Caucasian. He infuses the potentially antagonistic role with a goofy charm and likeability.
David Fujino brings the heart and soul to the performance. His poised and dignified portrayals of nuclear physicist/accused spy Wen Ho Lee as well as Hwang’s terminally ill father are particularly poignant.
Yellow Face is a great piece of theatre. Like all great theatre it entertains but it also asks questions, provokes thought and encourages dialogue. The play deftly examines its subject matter without coming off as preachy. It challenges audience members to examine the issues and come up with their own thoughts and opinions. Only after we engage in that dialogue can attitudes and perceptions start to change.
– YELLOW FACE “A tempest in an Oriental teapot”
– March 4 – 12, 2011
– 2 Week Run – Week 1: Fri and Sat @ 8pm / Week 2: Wed to Sat @ 8pm + Sat @ 2PM
Tickets: Adults $25, Students & Seniors $15, $10 Student Tickets every Wednesday Night!
U of T Arts Council Presents: Speakers in the Arts Series, 2011: A Conversation with David Henry Hwang
Tuesday March 8, 2011 at 7PM, Hart House Theatre – Interview conducted by David Yee, Artistic Director, Fu-GEN, Tickets $10 Adults / $5 Students and Seniors
After the performance there will be a Talk-back with David Henry Hwang and the company of Yellow Face. Wednesday March 9, 2011
– BOX OFFICE: www.uofttix.ca / 416-978-8849
– Ben Wong plays DHH. Image by Will O’Hare.