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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Yellow Face
National Theatre Shed       Spring 2014

In 1990 Asian-American playwright David Henry Hwang led the ultimately unsuccessful protest against Jonathan Pryce being cast as an Asian character in the Broadway production of Miss Saigon. A couple of years later Hwang's own comedy about racial miscasting, Face Value, was a major flop. 

Out of these two events, and the ruminations of the intervening years, Hwang wrote Yellow Face, a darkly-tinged satiric look at race and racism, in 2007. 

Much of the play is factual and some, we will learn, isn't. Hwang imagines a fictional playwright named David Henry Hwang, who writes a fictional flop called Face Value and, desperate to find a leading man, convinces himself that a white actor is Eurasian. 

The guy runs with the lie and winds up a successful supposedly-Asian star and hero to the Asian-American community, while the play's Hwang is considered retrograde for trying to expose him. 

Meanwhile, the passage of years includes other events, personal and national, that demonstrate that American anti-Asian racism is alive and threatening. 

So one strand of Yellow Face mixes broad farce with the question of whether race labels mean anything when they are so much in the eye of the beholder, while the other raises the alarm that race labels are indeed still being used by all the wrong people for all the wrong reasons. 

Kevin Shen is a little stiff and tentative as David, and Ben Starr never really gets under the skin of the actor, but the rest of the cast juggle a few dozen roles each to keep things bouncing along.

Though the play's comic and serious elements sometimes sit uneasily alongside each other, the fast-moving production by Alex Sims keeps things from getting bogged down more than occasionally and momentarily, and Yellow Face succeeds admirably in its goal of being both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Yellow Face - National Theatre 2014 


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