“You don’t have to live as an Asian every day of your life.”
These words, spoken by the character David Henry Hwang (Newton Cheng) in Stanford’s Asian American Theater Project’s production of Hwang’s “unreliable memoir” Yellow Face, ring clear throughout the small, intimate space of the Elliott Program Center. Hwang has his back to the audience, head tilted upwards as he confronts the character of Marcus (Levi Jennings) over his self-proclaimed “choice” to be Asian– Siberian Jewish American, to be exact. Marcus stands upon a simple podium, lights beaming down on him like some sort of halo. In this moment, Marcus is playing savior, the beacon of whiteness coming to “save” the play’s Asian community, taking the qualities of color that benefit him while remaining free of the struggle that comes from racism. Everyone wants to be Asian, but no one actually wants to be Asian.
Such is the central message of Yellow Face. Inspired by the casting of white British actor Jonathan Pryce in a traditionally Asian role in Miss Saigon and the real-life flop of Hwang’s Face Value, this production moves fluidly between reality and performance, taking control of the complex messages of race, racism, stereotyping, and media portrayals of minorities and giving them to the audience in a way that not only entertains, but in a way that makes you think. The show, despite its thematic and social complexity, consists of only six talented individuals. Apart from Cheng and Jennings, the ensemble, made up of Janel Lee, Colette Brannan, Lea-Tereza Tenekedjieva, and Julio Chávez, take on a variety of roles that transcend gender and race, from Texan Republican senators to a portrayal of Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwanese-American computer scientist who was accused of espionage, and everyone in between. They do so with fluidity and precision, giving each individual character, well, character. The actors use small changes in posture and inflection and simple props and costume changes such as scarves or blazers in such a way that you can easily distinguish Lee’s portrayal of Hwang’s father Henry Y. Hwang, filled with joy and hope bursting from the seams of her wide smile and quick and natural conversations with Cheng, from her various recitations of news articles about the goings-on in the play. All of the members of the ensemble exude well-rehearsed precision, and it’s an absolute marvel to watch them work.
Cheng and Jennings play off of each other in an interesting way, a way that isn’t exactly indicative of mortal enemies, but one of creator and rebellious creation. Cheng plays David Henry Hwang, who is also the playwright, and whose life Yellow Face is based upon, adding a level of metaphysicality to the show that basically screams “MIMESIS!” while you watch it. Cheng plays Hwang with an air of confidence and strength; throughout his performance, you watch him oscillate between an overly confident big shot New Yorker and a man frustrated with how Asian Americans are treated in the United States. Why is there a difference between Chinese and American, but not one between white and American, and why are Asians always asked, “Where are you really from?” are the central questions that Hwang grapples with. Cheng portrays this struggle with maturity and realism, adding humor and satire to serious social issues. Marcus, who plays Asian as a result of a casting mistake on the part of Hwang, isn’t an outwardly evil or racist character, despite him starting out as one of the obvious antagonists of Yellow Face. Instead, Jennings plays Marcus as unsure, timid, dreamlike, a white man with the best of intentions unable to look past the realities of his privilege. He doesn’t scream or fight against Hwang, but merely questions him. Why can’t he choose to be Asian? Why is his presence in Asian American activism problematic? Why can’t he be whatever he wants? Isn’t that the American dream?
AATP’s Yellow Face is especially prevalent today, despite it being set in the late nineties and early 2000s. With the recent casting of Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton as canonically Asian characters in Ghost in the Shell and Doctor Strange, respectively, we have to ask ourselves: how is this still a thing? Actors of color are constantly being passed over for white actors, even for roles that are supposed to be people of color, and this decreases representation in media for these minority groups. But when an actor of color is cast in a role that is traditionally seen as white, such as the casting of a black actress to play Hermione Granger in the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, all hell breaks loose (although Hermione is not specifically referred to as white in the Harry Potter series, she’s only seen as white because of Emma Watson). The double standards are blatant and racist, but mainstream media either ignores it or passes it off as minorities as being “oversensitive.” But as Yellow Face clearly shows, white actors playing people of color are simply in the wrong roles.
As a mixed race person who gets passed off as white every day, Yellow Face makes me uncomfortable. It makes me angry. But it’s supposed to. It’s supposed to make me want to scream in the faces of Swinton and Johansson and Emma Stone and Jake Gyllenhaal and Jim Sturgess and every other white actor who has ever taken a role meant for a person of color and ask them how they have the gall and the conscience to participate in this systemic and poisonous racism. It’s supposed to make me more conscious of the privilege my light skin and it’s supposed to push white audience members to be an ally, not a savior. It’s supposed to make me wander from EPC with my head swirling with ideas and interpretations and appreciation for its complexity and depth, and wonder where I’m supposed to begin in the writing of its review when there is just so much to talk about.
And, believe me, AATP’s production of Yellow Face accomplishes all it’s supposed to and more.
Photos courtesy of Frank Chen