“Yellow Face” at Theater J (28 cents)

Just a brief note about the clever and enjoyable “Yellow Face” now playing at Theater J.

David Henry Hwang, playwright and author of “M. Butterfly” got involved in protesting the engagement of a Caucasian actor to play the role of a Vietnamese character in “Miss Saigon” on Broadway.  The protest was initially successful, and then its success was reversed and Jonathan Price went on to play the lead to great acclaim.

“Yellow Face” is a semi-autobiographical play about the principle of ethnic casting – should an Asian character always be played by an Asian actor (and so forth)?

The lead in the play is no other than David Henry Hwang (not played by himself) and, although wishing to be true to his principal, turns out to engage a Caucasian actor to play an Asian lead in his next play.  To make the matter worse, he convinces himself that perhaps the actor is part-Asian (“it’s so hard to tell”) and to make it even worser and worser, when he realizes that no one (except the actor’s clueless girlfriend – who should know better since she heads the equivalent of the ADL for Asians) believes him, concocts the story that he is descended from Siberian Jews (which he is not) and that, of course, Siberia is in Asia.

The play answers no questions, but shows that the issue of ethnic casting is one of those issues that will bedevil casting agents and directors eternally because there are no clear answers.  Cast minorities as minorities and they will get those roles, but no others, and will therefore have their careers limited.  Cast whites as minorities, and you are cutting minorities out of their most obvious roles.  No answer.

The cast is terrific, the writing crisp and funny.  No ethnic group is insulted (not even that illusive ethnic group of Siberian Jews).

By the way, CaucASIAN isn’t ASIAN?  Think again.

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