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Amazing "Face"

Date: Jan 04, 2008


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What do a nearly 20-year-old Broadway casting controversy and a 10-year-old federal banking investigation have to say to the political moment at the dawn of 2008? Quite a lot, in fact, based on the evidence of Yellow Face, David Henry Hwang's new play, extended at the Public Theatre through Jan. 13.

The twin inspirations for the play are a pair of real-life incidents that put Hwang's name in the headlines. Not long after winning the Tony for writing the play M Butterfly, Hwang used his celebrity to spearhead protests against the casting of Jonathan Pryce as a Eurasian pimp in the Broadway production of Miss Saigon. And near the end of the 1990s, Hwang's father, an Asian-American banking pioneer based in Southern California, was caught up in over-reaching federal investigations of Chinese-American political donations and alleged espionage.

Between these two extremes--a controversy fueled by political correctness, and a case of arguable yellow-peril racism--Hwang found a play, and another way to write about some of the themes he's treated since his early play F.O.B.

"Since the failure of Face Value, I had in the back of my mind that I wanted to write another comedy of racial identity, but I didn't have a form," says Hwang, referring to his 1993 flop, inspired by the Miss Saigon controversy, which never made it past previews on Broadway. "Then, starting about 2000, a couple of Asian filmmakers cast me as myself in their films. And then I saw I Am My Own Wife, and Doug Wright puts himself in the play as 'Doug.' " By then, Hwang knew he wanted to bookend a play with the Miss Saigon controversy and the federal targeting of his father. "I could have created a fictional playwright called 'Bill Lee,' but I thought it would be easier to just put myself in it."

In the play, which Hwang has called a "mockumentary," actor Hoon Lee stars as the playwright, though we don't see many scenes of him at his desk. Instead we see him tussling with such real-life figures as Miss Saigon producer Cameron Mackintosh and Saigon star (and one-time Hwang girlfriend) Lea Salonga; arguing the meaning of the American Dream with his Republican, Sinatra-loving father; and finally facing off with an unnamed investigative reporter from The New York Times, who proves to Hwang that, no matter how post-racial we may seem to be in these days of Obama fever, racism is not dead.

"That's a contradiction it's hard to get one's mind around," Hwang says. "The character becomes really confused after the whole Miss Saigon incident, and his fundamentalist certainty in identity politics becomes compromised. Only when he comes face to face with actual racism is he able to balance these two contradictory realities--that on the one hand race doesn't actually exist, and that there are a lot of silly things about identity politics, and at the same time, sometimes racist things still happen."

Indeed, though Hwang's views of the politics that motivated his P.C. protest are more complicated now, he didn't want to write a play that only made fun of them.

"I hadn't really seen a play that had satirized identity politics that wasn't just completely against it," Hwang explains. "I wanted to do something that both recognized what was silly about it and recognized its necessity. I mean, being an ethnic role model is simultaneously necessary and absurd, and I had to be able to understand both truths to write this play."

A crucial blow to Hwang's sense of identity politics came from a non-theatrical source.

"It's tricky, because identity politics and multiculturalism are things I was very involved in, and still am to an extent, but like any ideology, they're limited. But a big moment for me was the first cabinet of Bush II: It was the most multicultural cabinet in history, and also really lousy. So obviously there are some limits to identity politics."

Remarkably, Yellow Face is Hwang's first original straight play since 1997's Golden Child. He has spent the intervening years working on musical librettos (Flower Drum Song, Aida, Tarzan) and scripts for film and TV (Possession, Golden Gate, The Lost Empire). He's glad to be back.

"Writing a play, and being the principal artistic voice on a project, reminds me how incredibly exciting it is, and also how scary," Hwang says.

Clearly, the late-model Hwang is comfortable with mixed feelings--you might even call them his central subject.

To find out more about Yellow Face, go here.