Sunday, February 4, 2018

A Review of 'Yellow Face' by David Henry Hwang

"'A thesis of a play, unafraid of complexities and contradictions, pepped up with a light dramatic fizz.  It asks whether race is skin-deep, actable or even fakeable, and it does so with huge wit and brio.' --TimeOut London

'A pungent play of ideas with a big heart.  Yellow Face brings to the national discussion about race a sense of humor a mile wide, an even-handed treatment and a hopeful, healing vision of a world that could be.' --Variety

The play begins with the 1990s controversy over color-blind casting for Miss Saigon before it spins into a comic fantasy, in which the character DHH pens a play in protest and the unwittingly casts a white actor as the Asian lead.  Yellow Face also explores the real-life investigation of Hwang's father, the first Asian American to own a federally chartered bank, and the espionage charges against physicist Wen Ho Lee.  Adroitly combining the light touch of comedy with weighty political and emotional issues, Hwang creates a 'lively and provocative cultural self-portrait [that] lets nobody off the hook' (The New York Times)."

This play was one that my husband read for his multicultural literature class when he was completing his bachelor's degree (don't get me started on the name of the class "multicultural literature."  It's a rant for a different day).  It's been sitting on our shelf ever since and I vowed to read it one day.  Turns out that day would come later in 2017.

In my own undergraduate education, I had started delving into this idea of Yellow Face and lack of representation of especially Asian men in performance spaces, but this digging was never really completed.  I don't think this book ends that exploration, but rather gives me some direction in that search and more importantly gives me some background.

I don't think I fully realized what a problem lack of Asian representation is, especially in today's day and age.  It's not so much that white people are taping their eyes in order to place some non-descript Asian character in a play (at least not so much anymore... although shamefully that did happen), but it comes down to when Asian people are taking parts in Hollywood roles and big-name stage plays, what roles are they getting?  Roles where Asian men are not seen as being capable of being masculine.  Sidekick roles where they are the comedic relief.  Maybe the mysterious bad guy.  Waitstaff that can barely speak English and are just caricatures.  And Asian women are seen as exotic, likely something delicate that, if you do touch, you need to be ridiculously careful.  It's a much more stagnant world out there for Asian actors than other actors of different racial backgrounds.

I don't want to claim I've been completely enlightened and that I know everything on this topic, but my eyes have been opened.  Lately my students and I have been learning a lot about race as part of our current unit and so I've been thinking a lot about this topic and I've been wanting to learn more about race and how we treat people who are different races other than white.  To a certain degree, I was on that mission at the end of 2017 too.  I'll keep learning about this as much as possible.

Specific to this play, it's a really intriguing because it digs into how we define who fits into a particular race category; how we decide.  It's also interesting because it's written in the form of a confession.  I'd be interested in rereading this again later down the line.  Maybe in 2018.  I'm reading a lot of nonfiction this year so far and have a lot more planned.

If you're interested in seeing the play as opposed to reading this play, here it is in video form:

I give 'Yellow Face':
Thanks for Reading!

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