Opening Nights: Yellow Face

A semi-autobiographical, semi-farcical look at theater and race.

Theater on a shoestring can yield unforgettable results. I'm thinking of recent stunners like Balagan's The K of D and Rapture of the Deep and Seattle Rep's The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Some had serious flaws, none were mounted at great expense, but all shared depth and immediacy, the sense that something vital was at stake. ReAct Theatre and the Pork Filled Players bring all those same good intentions to bear on Yellow Face, which is by turns brave, cuttingly honest, amateurish, and wince-inducing. David Henry Hwang's 2007 play is actually built on the ashes of his colossal Broadway failure, Face Value, an early-'90s show created in response to the cross-racial casting of Jonathan Pryce in the smash musical Miss Saigon. In Yellow Face, a playwright with the initials D.H.H. (Moses Yim) must confront his own racial stereotypes and hang-ups when, while casting his show Face Value, he inadvertently hires a talented white actor for the Asian lead part. Hwang never shrinks from making D.H.H. look foolish: first for being a poor judge of ethnicity, second for firing his star to avoid embarrassment, and finally because the latter (Lee Osorio), believing he has found "his people," is now more rabidly pro-Asian than D.H.H. could ever hope to be. There's a farcical mistaken-identity good humor that enlivens the first act of Yellow Face. But, over time, the full weight of racism bears on the show and its cast of newbies and veterans. It's hard to imagine how any of this worked off-Broadway, especially when—during the show's denouement—Hwang breaks the proscenium and begins to address both the audience and the actors he's moved around like chess pieces. He's painted himself into a corner, and he knows it. Directed by David Hsieh, Yellow Face means well, and both Yim and Osorio give very solid performances. The rest of the cast is weak, however, and Hsieh has too much faith that Yellow Face will yield something profound. You might as well leaf through the Yellow Pages in search of a good story.

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