David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face, presented by Theatre Raleigh, examines Asian American identity, politics, and “yellowface”—the term for white actors playing Asian characters, often to the point of caricature. Yellowface has a long history, extending from Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s to, more recently, Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell and Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange.
In this comedic, semiautobiographical play, playwright and activist David Henry Hwang, who has long decried yellowface, accidentally casts a white man in an Asian role in the play he is staging. What follows is an unreliable kind of memoir, with fact and fiction blurring into a timely examination of Asian American identity and race, alongside the different “faces” people wear every day.
Yellow Face is staged in Theatre Raleigh’s intimate new TR Studio, and scenic designer Miyuki Su’s hyper-realistically painted thrust stage allows the audience to view director Telly Leung’s electric staging from left, right, and center. Paired with Charlie Raschke’s engaging lighting and projection design—often casting the stone building facade with newspaper clippings, looming faces, graceful leaf gobos, and even jarring static—the set becomes a character in and of itself, bearing testament to the histories being retold.
As actors—who are efficiently dressed for their many roles by costume designer Kishara McKnight—move around tables, stand on chairs, and rip open upstage’s red curtain, the play provides an apt portrayal of the tension between identity, art creation, and the American Dream.
Audience members on either side of the stage are lit by color-changing windows and dynamic lighting, firmly placing us in the heart of a sharp comedy that moves quickly and pulls no punches. Racial discrimination, whiteness, and Asian American identity often coexist in the same punch line.
Beyond cutting jokes and impersonations of famous figures, the emotional core of Theatre Raleigh’s rendition is at its strongest when it looks at the relationship between Hwang and his father, in roles played expertly by Hansel Tan and Alan Ariano.
With phone conversations and one-on-one conversations over newspaper clippings, Tan and Ariano show the distinct experience of what it means to balance both your parents’ dreams and your own, especially as an artist. Ariano is a particular standout, with his comedic characters stealing scenes and, as Hwang’s endearing father, becoming a performer you can’t keep your eyes off of.
His particular portrayal of Wen Ho Lee—a Taiwanese American scientist who was accused by the U.S. Justice Department of being a Chinese spy and was jailed in solitary confinement without bail for 278 days—aided by Eric Alexander Collins’s eerie sound design, is a heart-wrenching portrayal of a dark chapter in American history.
Members of the dynamic ensemble Brook North (Stuart Ostro and others), Kylie Robinson (Leah Anne Cho and others), Liam Yates (Announcer and others), and Ali Evarts (Jane and others) quickly and aptly portray so many different roles from David Henry Hwang’s life, and it’s stunning to watch, as is Pascal Pastrana’s pitch-perfect Marcus, antagonizing Tan’s biting Henry David Hwang in every way as a perfectly infuriating, albeit charming, white man.
As a biracial Asian American myself, who straddles Asian identity and whiteness, this sharp comedy feels especially apt. In the midst of a resurgence of racism that prompted the #StopAsianHate and #RepresentionMatters movements—as well as all the ways that marginalized people are continuing to get their rights stripped on a daily basis—this examination of self feels like it could have premiered in 2022, not 2007.
Yellow Face starts with Tan’s Hwang placing different actors on stage before the first moment of the show, after a completely silent pre-show. We see a writer trying to work out the farce we live in every day by placing actors and then himself onstage. By bringing us into his play, his mind, his alienation, and behind his many faces, maybe he can make us see where we are and where we have been that much clearer.
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