A Review of “Yellow Face” at Theater J

I had no idea what to expect with Yellow Face–all I knew was that it was about the experience of being Asian-American, and what that really entails. I was not expecting it to be so funny, and, frankly, I wasn’t expecting it to be so honest.

Yellow Face is still in previews, and it was a little rough around the edges, but I was amazed with the way the actors left everything they had on the stage. Despite the initially rocky start, it was obvious that the entire cast committed themselves fully to the difficult racial and cultural issues the shows deal with, and managed to do so with humor and obvious honesty, even where that honesty was uncomfortable and less than flattering.

Though I was very impressed with all of the performers, the standout for me was Al Twanmo as Henry Hwang, David Hwang’s father. I heard this echoed by other audience members after the performance, as well. His heartfelt and sincere performance took the play to the next level, from merely political to intensely personal. He was utterly believable and possibly the most sympathetic character in the show; he was imperfect in how he approached things, which made him human, but he still radiated goodness and honesty in a way no other character on the stage did. Twanmo’s performance was, I believe, much of the reason that the audience left the show thinking not only of racial politics, but of the identity of their own family, and what those bonds truly mean.

The usage of the ensemble in this play was also outstanding—the use of quotes from papers and celebrities, as well as the constant switching of identity, had the effect of causing even more confusion about the labels and categorizations being used onstage to distinguish the characters from one another, or even to bring them together. Race, gender, persona, and background and changed at a rapid-fire pace, bringing even more labels into question than just that of “Asian,” or “Asian-American,” as the main plot does.

One thing that surprised me about the play was the breaking of the fourth wall at the end, which is honestly a tactic I usually despise in stage plays. I don’t like being pulled out of the action in order for the playwright to tell me what I ought to think or how I ought to feel about something. But in this particular context, I actually thought it added value. Instead of coming off as preachy or disingenuous, it added to the raw honesty that carries the entire play. Without such a delicate hand writing the dialogue, it easily could have ruined the sincerity of the show, but instead, it allows for yet another level of soul-baring by David Henry Hwang (both the character and the playwright).

I came away from the show impressed by the playwright’s courage in writing a show that showed him at his best, and at his worst. Most of the way through the show, I didn’t actually realize that the main character was the playwright. I think one reason that didn’t occur to me was because throughout a good part of the show, the protagonist isn’t very sympathetic. In refusing to answer Marcus’s calls and generally misusing the people around him, David is coarse and frustrating, or at least was for me as an audience member. As the character himself says, all writing is to some extent autobiographical, but to use your real name and be willing to show the worst side of yourself to an audience is a level of courage that, especially as an aspiring novelist, both floors and inspires me.

Yellow Face isn’t a perfect show. The lines weren’t all delivered flawlessly and the kinks haven’t all been worked out. But, as Marcus says near the end of the show, “Nothing with real value, nothing human, is ever pure.” Yellow Face isn’t pure, but it is brutally, truthfully, warmly, hilariously human.

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