Is racism a taboo subject in the arts? Of course not. From Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Porgy and Bess to the whitewashing of the Oscars, artists have used their platform to explore America’s history of racism, discrimination, and injustice. A better question is: Are comedy and satire permissible forms of portraying the struggle? Archie Bunker and George Jefferson helped Norman Lear laugh all the way to the bank in the 1970s and ’80s while challenging bigotry weekly. Yellow Face is attempting to do the same today.
Silver Spring Stage’s production of David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face explores ethnic divisions through parody only to find some questions too serious to laugh at. Director Jon Jon Johnson and cast guide the audience into thinking big.
Hwang crafted what is considered a mockumentary in Yellow Face, a part-truth, part-fantasy life story in 2007. By then, the playwright had won several awards and became the first Asian American to win a Tony Award for M Butterfly in 1988. But that success was followed by disappointment when his 1993 play Face Value flopped on Broadway, closing in previews and costing its producers a bundle.
Yellow Face was Hwang’s response to the debacle of Face Value. Written as a revisiting of Face Value, with a semi-autobiographical version of Hwang (the character is called DHH) dealing with the fallout after he accidentally casts a white actor to play an Asian character.
DHH is played creditably by Diego Maramba. Referencing the fact that Hwang was an outspoken critic when white actors were cast to play Asian roles in the Broadway musical Miss Saigon, the comedy in Yellow Face ensues when DHH accidentally casts Marcus G. Dahlman (Ramtin Vaziri) as his lead, at first believing that he is Asian, then realizing he has cast a white man. In a publicity move before the opening, Hwang introduces Marcus to a student Asian-American community as Marcus Gee, Asian by way of his Jewish ancestry and from Siberia. As Marcus answers questions about his identity, students bond with him. As Marcus shines, Hwang unravels, bringing a psychological element to the play that Maramba captures in his performance.
Marcus is eventually replaced by an Asian actor (Joe Tran). DHH orchestrated the move but is too cowardly to explain it to Marcus who then haunts DHH with emails from China, where he went to “find himself.” In the meantime, DHH’s career is drying up.
This play probes character on several levels. The key question Hwang asks is what really matters? Is it race, gender, religion or heart? People are often not honest with themselves about the answer. DHH and Marcus examine concepts of dignity, reputation, and respect in American society.
DHH’s father (Edgar Ferrufino) does a fantastic job of indirectly supporting his son’s work. Maramba and Ferrufino team well together, as do Maramba and Vaziri. Erica Smith plays a reporter who has a grilling interview with David. She is seeking a link between him and hundreds of millions of dollars of Red Chinese money invested in Henry’s bank. Madelyn Ferris, Omar LaTiri, Tran, and Cruz each play several roles in the play.
The set cleverly features snippets of Marcus’ emails on the back wall above and around the props on the stage. A few monochrome photos of assorted faces of famous non-Asian performers who have played Asian characters are mixed in. Props are minimal: a light desk, a couple of chairs, few filing cabinets in the back and a couple of keyboards.
Theater in the United States has always lagged behind demographics when it comes to diversity and representation. Works like Yellow Face play an important part in remedying that.
Running Time: One hour and 55 minutes, with a 20-minute intermission.
Jeff Goldgeiger (Sound Engineer), Venus Gulbranson (Lighting Designer), Elisabeth Jenkins McFadden (Set Designer).