Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

In the Yellow

May 26, 2007

Tzi Ma as HYH and Hoon Lee as DHH
Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2007
Just when you thought David Henry Hwang had moved on to the world of musicals and opera libretti for good, he delivers a “straight play," Yellow Face, to the Mark Taper Forum that is a huge dramatic success. It deserves to be a financial one as well. In fact, this is probably the best new play to grace the Taper stage in years. In a great blend of autobiography and fiction, Yellow Face revisits events from Hwang’s own life following his involvement in the controversy over the casting of Jonathan Pryce in Miss Saigon on Broadway. David Henry Hwang, the character, soon finds himself trapped in an awkward situation as he unknowingly casts a white man he believes to be Asian in his Broadway follow-up to M. Butterfly - a comedy entitled Face Value, a huge flop, that revisited elements of the Miss Saigon controversy. Yellow Face spirals forward from there over the next 20 years intersecting with a variety of personal and public events in Hwang’s life including everything from his father’s illness to the controversies in the press around figures like Wen Ho Lee and John Wong.

All of this is woven into a challenging and thought-provoking work about race and the peculiar American obsession with the need to both simultaneously ignore and acknowledge it. The shifting sands of identity are on display here as the hopeless desire for clear boundaries and convenient categories to define people becomes fodder for comedy and a good bit of dramatic tension. This is a rich play with many things to say and Hwang feels no pressure to make things simplistic or easy. His art, like his (and everyone else's) life is much too complex for that. At the center of Yellow Face are two marvelous performances from Hoon Lee as the author’s stand-in and Tzi Ma in a number of roles including the author’s father. Lee’s comic timing is superb and he resists the temptation to reach for TV-sitcom style guffaws. The supporting cast is quite good across the board as well.

The staging itself and Leigh Silverman’s direction can be a bit pedestrian at times and there are some tone problems as the work careens from comic elements to intensely serious ones with little warning. Story lines are dropped and returned to in a way that is sometimes unfocused. The piece cries out for the intensity of approach on display in some major recent historical works that have made big splashes such as David Hare’s Stuff Happens and Paul Morgan’s Frost/Nixon. But frankly these are minor issues. Hwang has produced a major play that deserves to be seen by a wide audience and here’s wishing him much success with it. The staging will surely get sharper as the play moves on to other locales. If you're in LA, you should definitely check it out at the Mark Taper Forum through July 1. Plus, given that this is the last production at the Taper before it’s year-long renovation hiatus, it will be your last chance to enjoy this space for awhile.


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