“Nowadays, it’s so hard to tell”
London’s newest theatre opened its doors in Finsbury Park last week but the Park Theatre also has a more intimate studio and it is the UK premiere of David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face that christens that space. Hwang was the first Asian-American to win a Tony for Best Play and so was a predictable figurehead for the 1990 protests against the casting of Jonathan Pryce in a Eurasian role in the Broadway production of Miss Saigon and it is this that forms the starting point for his play Yellow Face which questions ideas of race and identity and whether any such thing as a multicultural society can really exist when prejudices continue to weigh in from all sides.
Hwang uses his own experiences but also weaves elements of fiction into the play – the version of himself who is the lead character is (barely) renamed DHH – to create something of a fantasia, which allows him to heighten the absurdity of many of these situations whilst simultaneously maintaining the chilling realisation that most of it is not too far from reality. It’s a heady mixture and one which frequently pays off. The trickiness of dealing with the sensitive subject of race is tackled head on and with no little humour – trite aphorisms about tolerance and looking beneath the skin are constantly rehashed and recycled, even borrowing lyrics from an En Vogue song at one point, as the difficulties of verbalising what racial identity really means and just how important it actually is are thrown under the spotlight.
So from the Miss Saigon debacle, we move to a farcical scenario where DHH gets involved in his own casting scandal when he employs a white actor as an Asian in one of his own plays, trying to pass him off as a man with Siberian Jewish descent and unwittingly creating a faux ethnic crossover superstar in the process. And latterly we watch a financial scandal envelop his banker father with its uncomfortably institutionalised anti-Chinese rhetoric, a much more serious strand to the drama and one which ultimately feels the most compelling. The play does take a while to get there though, Hwang mocks his own self-indulgent tendencies in the text, and it is hard not to feel that some judicious trimming could make this into a shorter yet more intense interval-free experience.
That said, there’s much to enjoy in Alex Sims’ committed production, staged in the round with Lily Arnold’s simple but effective design. Kevin Shen makes a remarkably assured stage debut as an engaging and frequently bemused DHH, and the remaining six actors rattle through a vast array of supporting characters with quick-changing verve. Ben Starr is excellent as Marcus Gee, the corn-fed American who somehow becomes the biggest new star in the Asian community; Christy Meyer is sizzling as a calculating journalist determined to play on perceived notions of patriotism to get the scoop; and Gemma Chan and Davina Perera also both impress.
At a time when people are quick (maybe too quick) to jump on any comment that might display racial intolerance, Yellow Face offers a fascinating opportunity to look at the situation from the inside and question what one holds as acceptable or otherwise. It may not be a perfect piece of drama but it is certainly one of the most thought-provoking right now.