The often discussed, though eternally unresolved issue of the under-representation of minority groups on-stage is exactly what makes Yellow Face, currently playing at the National Theatre Shed, so refreshing, important and bold for tackling the issue head on, and so eloquently too. Tony Award-winning David Henry Hwang’s play about the East Asian experience in America is a vital exploration of race, discrimination and and media hysteria, as well as a masterclass in brilliant writing, acting and directing, making it a definite one to catch before the end of its run.
The lines between reality and fiction become blurred in this self-referential and self-deprecating piece, which cleverly borrows from the biography of its playwright. Yellow Face follows the story of DHH (Kevin Shen) who becomes embroiled in the controversy surrounding the casting of a white man, Jonathan Pryce, to play a Eurasian pimp in the Broadway transfer of Miss Saigon. In response, DHH writes Face Value, and mistakenly casts a white actor, Marcus G. Dahlman (Ben Starr) as an Asian, realising his blunder only when it is too late. As Marcus takes on the mantel of his mistaken ethnicity, and people’s willingness to believe him echoing the story of The Emperors’ New Clothes, the subject of race becomes sticky, and DHH fights to hold onto what makes him Asian-American.
Hwang’s play repeatedly returns to this idea of whether we are the masks we wear, or if our ethnicity can define us. And indeed, as the fast-paced plot drives on, we come to see how this small instance of confusion, discrimination and exploitation is only a microcosmic example of the tangled issues of race and representation in America. Eventually, it is DHH’s own father and he himself who have their national loyalties tested, becoming figureheads in the anti-Chinese hysteria about ‘the yellow peril’ which erupted towards the end of the century as China began to develop economically.
One of the finest scenes in the play, which really encapsulates its fundamental conflicts, comes when DHH meets journalist, Name Withheld on Advice of Council (Christy Meyer), to discuss whether he or his father harbour any anti-American sentiments. The scene closes the gap between the facts the media purport to present and the fiction which characterises DHH’s work, making the scene as enlightening as it was entertaining.
Yellow Face not only offers audiences a gripping and pertinent story, but an imaginative and visual production as well. Director Alex Sims opts for a simple staging which leaves the focus on the cast’s deft performances as they flit between characters, to great comic effect. Joshua Carr’s lighting works beautifully in tandem with Lily Arnold’s design to give the play fluidity and clarity, allowing Sims to make inventive decisions and the audience to get involved imaginatively as well.
Yellow Face does all the things that great theatre should: from the strength of the script to how the cast and creative team have realised it. It makes you laugh, it makes you want to know more and it really makes you think.
Yellow Face is playing at the NT Shed until 24 May. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre website.