Updated: 1 day ago
David Henry Hwang’s Politics of Laughter
by Joel Beers
Three distinct time periods occupy the world of “Yellow Face,” David Henry Hwang’s ferociously funny, 2007 semi-autobiographical play that mixes fact and fiction in a docudrama blender that is as earnest and elusive as the main question it explores: Who am I?
One era is the mid-2000s in the United States, and involves a Republican-led Congressional investigation of suspected Chinese investment in American banks that sweeps Hwang’s character, DHH, into its net as he happens to sit on the board of one of those banks, which was founded by his father.
The second is 1999, as DHH, recognized as America’s most successful Asian American playwright, works on getting his big budget new play ready for its short out-of-town engagement before its Broadway opening.
The third is 1990, when Hwang, fresh off the success of his Tony Award-winning play “M. Butterfly,” becomes the most prominent voice in the protests over the casting of a white actor to play the lead in the Broadway-bound “Miss Saigon.”
“Yellow Face” is nearly 20 years old. It’s been 40 years since the casting of “Miss Saigon” erupted into one of the first, if not the first, high-profile flashpoint centered on ethnic representation and cultural appropriation. But it does not feel dated in any way; in fact, it feels as if it could have been written in 2023. It’s not that the socio-political concerns in the play have changed as much as they’ve amplified. The skirmish over cultural representation in “Miss Saigon” has mushroomed into a national clash over ethnic, sexual and gender identity with battlegrounds ranging from public school libraries and university campuses to restaurant kitchens and David Beckham’s follicles. In 1990, a short-lived cancellation of “Miss Saigon” took the collective weight of New York City’s artists and their allies; today lives can be destroyed in an internet minute by an entire cancel culture. And though the Yellow Peril re-surfaced in 2006 when Americans were investigated just because their last names sounded Chinese, it roared back with a vengeance during the pandemic, when hate crimes directed toward Asian Americans soared.
But though “Yellow Fever” certainly touches on those concerns, and is downright prophetic at times, it’s not a political play because Hwang isn’t a political playwright. In interviews, he’s been quite open about his own complicated, if not seemingly contradictory at times, view on things such as the debate over cultural appropriation and artistic freedom. And just as the form of “Yellow Face” draws heavily on the docudrama style of plays like “The Laramie Project” but is more mockudrama in its freewheeling blend of fact and fiction, “Yellow Face” isn’t a play that makes political statements as much as it satirizes the often illogical extremes that people can drift toward when the subject is racial politics or multiculturalism.
That contemporary relevance is of the main reasons Aung Khine Min, who directs “Yellow Face” at The Wayward Artist, said he proposed it to the company. But it’s not the only reason.
He was drawn to the challenge of directing a play that borders on the surreal in how it moves through time and space; how five of the seven actors play multiple roles; how elaborate set changes, and even large set pieces, are impossible because locations change so rapidly (the first two pages, Min said, take place in three different locations).
“I wanted something raw and different and that forces the director to be creative in order to deliver the story to the audience,” Min, a resident artist at the company, said. “It has to be fluid enough so the audience suspends its disbelief, but not so much that they are confused. You can’t do much or too little.”
Min also said that while the cultural lens Hwang wrote the play through is Asian American certainly didn’t deter him from wanting to direct it (Min’s heritage is Burmese), he doesn’t think the play is confined to that perspective.
“No matter their ethnicity or race, everybody has struggles in their own way with who they are,” Min said. “Look at ‘Death of a Salesman,” it is culturally aligned a certain way in the play but it is about a family struggling, and that happens in every ethnicity everywhere.”
And many times it’s hard for people in a family unit, or individually, or even an entire nation, to talk openly and honestly about those struggles. And one way to get people to talk honestly is to somehow get them to lighten up, and what better way to do that through laughter? Min said that beyond the play’s contemporary relevance, its socio-political concerns and cultural perspective, even the artistic challenge of staging it, the way Hwang focuses that laughter is why he’s drawn to it.
The character who struggles the most with identity, and makes colossal blunders in that struggle (like unwittingly casting a Caucasian for an Asian role and then frantically trying to pass the actor off as Asian) is DHH, who is the playwright in fictional form. So instead of a play that satirizes racial politics, which carries an inherent risk of backlash by the less good-humored out there, Hwang is satirizing himself.
“He is writing about topics that are very sensitive in real life,” Min said. “And he puts himself in the play so people can watch it and laugh at him instead of those issues.”
Someone once became rather famous for creating a fictional down-on-his-luck character the audience could laugh at. That, in turn, humanized the character, and maybe even worked as a reminder that the poor and destitute among them were humans as well. That actor once said laughter is the greatest medicine because of the relief it provides. If that’s true, maybe some laughter is in order for a country that in its attempt to heal longstanding wounds all too often seems to be tearing open new ones.
Joel Beers is a freelance journalist based in Orange County.. He has also written and adapted 10 full-length plays produced in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
The Wayward Artist
125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana
September 15 - 24, 2023
(949) 205-6273, www.thewaywardartist.org