5 MARCH 2017 | KAREN KAO
I finished reading Yellow Face in one sitting. That’s not hard to do with a play. As a reader, we get the dialogue and a few stage directions. The theatergoer gets to see the facial expressions, the body movement and the staging.
Yellow Face was written by David Henry Hwang. He also wrote the gender-bending, Tony award-winning M. Butterfly, as well as Chinglish, a hilarious send-up of an American Everyman trying to do business in China. But David Henry Hwang’s true claim to fame is that he’s the son of my first piano teacher, Mrs. Dorothy Hwang.
She taught piano on Saturdays at the Chinese school in Monterey Park, California. Upstairs, children recited their bopomofo’s, while downstairs others mangled music. Later, my mother realized that my brothers and I were impervious to the Chinese language. Then I took piano lessons at Mrs. Hwang’s elegant home in San Marino.
fact vs. fiction
The San Marino mansion as well as Mrs. Hwang herself make an appearance in Yellow Face. In fact, most of the cast are real-life personalities, like Senator John Kerry, TV host Dick Cavett and Chinese-American author Gish Jen. Frank Rich, in his foreword to Yellow Face, describes the play as:
A Pirandellian comedy built out of a trio of sour real-life events.
Event #1 is the protest led by the real David Henry Hwang. He and other theater artists denounced the casting of a white actor as the Vietnamese pimp in Miss Saigon.
The flop of the real David Henry Hwang’s play Face Value is event #2. That play closed while still in preview and is recreated in Yellow Face as the play-inside-the-play.
Event #3 is the “witchhunt” in the late 1990’s involving various prominent Chinese-Americans. Those include the nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee and the banker Henry Y. Hwang, the playwright’s own father. The allegations against Hwang range from money-laundering to espionage on behalf of a foreign power, in this case, China.
In 1996, then Vice-Presidential candidate Al Gore made an historic visit to the Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights. His visit resulted in charges of money-laundering and, once again, suspicions of espionage by the Chinese-American organizer of the event. The Hsi Lai Temple is just down the hill from where my parents now live. You can hear the gongs and the monks chanting from their backyard. The temple doesn’t figure in Yellow Face, though the bank founded by Henry Y. Hwang does: the Far East National Bank where my maternal grandmother did all her banking.
All this real-life texture has a purpose. Yellow Face is a mockumentary whose purpose is to skewer David Henry Hwang. The self-righteousness of the Miss Saigon protests. The political correctness that prevents a casting director from inquiring into the ethnicity of an actor. In Act One, the fictional David Henry Hwang (DHH) inadvertently casts a white man as the Chinese lead in Face Value. DHH turns to his agent, William Craver, for help:
DHH: What do you mean, I can’t fire him?
Craver: For being white? That would be a violation of antidiscrimination laws.
Act One is an effervescent comedy of mistaken identity. Act Two turns darker, where there is no mistake at all about identity, but rather what it implies. There’s a federal investigation into funds transferred from China to the Far Eastern National Bank. DHH and his father are both implicated. A journalist (hilariously called Name Withheld on the Advice of Counsel) offers DHH the chance to clear his name. But only if DHH will talk about his father.
NWOAOC: Does your father see himself as more American, or more Chinese?
DHH: That question makes no sense.
NWOAOC: On the contrary, I think it’s quite relevant.
DHH: How about you? Do you see yourself as more American or more white?
NWOAOC: That’s not the same thing. […] Because there’s no conflict between being white and being American.
There’s a hilarious moment in the play, when a white actor explains the Chinese concept of face.
Basically, it says that the face we choose to show the world – reveals who we really are.
Yellow Face premiered in May 2007. Soon thereafter, the American people elected Barack Obama as President of the United States. Our nation showed a hopeful face to the world in those days.
It’s hard to believe, let alone stomach, how much ground we’ve lost since. When a theater full of people would have laughed at NWOAOC. When a critic could say of a playwright:
If there’s a repeated refrain to the drama and farce that marks [Hwang’s] work, it’s that the multicultural categories that have so long both defined and divided America inexorably coalesce into an uncategorizable but universal humanity.
Now there’s a lesson worth learning, practicing over and over, until we get it right.