Yellow Face: Where a White Guy Can Become Asian, or Can He? (5 Stars)

by Claudia A. Fox Tree


The Office of War Information – Bureau of Theatre (OWI) presents its premiere production of David Henry Hwang’s, Yellow Face, an Obie Award winning play and Pulitzer Prize finalist, under the direction of Cliff Odle, running July 15-31, 2016 at the Boston Center for the Arts in Boston. See


Yellow Face succeeds at educating us about racism, while making us laugh, and that, folks, is not an easy task. “Black face” comes out of the minstrel era.  It’s supposed to be funny – white actors wearing black paint and behaving in the way they think African Americans act – but only ends up stereotyping a historically oppressed group.  Yellow face similarly is when white folks play Asian characters, but, unfortunately, it is not taboo like black face.  The playbill supplies helpful timelines reminding us that Kahn Singh was portrayed by Ricardo Montalbán in the original Star Trek series and Benedict Cumberbatch in the recent movie.  There was also Jonathan Pryce who played the Engineer in Miss Saigon, earning him a second Tony Award.


Yellow Face uses satire to address the experience of Asian Americans as Americans, not as Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, or Indian, but as Filipino-American, Indian-American, Chinese-American, and Japanese-American, which also happens to be the ethnic backgrounds of this entire cast. 


A son, David Henry Hwang (Michael Hisamoto), and father, Henry Y. Hwang (Eric Cheung), argue about whether or not they should still be protesting in this day and age, afterall, dad just wants to be Jimmy Stewart and live the American “It’s a Wonderful Life” dream.  The son, a playwright and producer, is casting an Asian American to play the lead role in a drama that will tell the story of struggle against being stereotyped, being seen as “the enemy,” and being accused of not being “American enough.”  Hwang wants to give his community a hero, a “real” Asian American actor, not someone in yellow face, but he can’t just ask about racial background during auditions, that’s against the law. Ultimately, a white actor is cast (actually an Asian American actor playing a white actor – white face).  The younger Hwang unwittingly sets up Marcus G. (Adam Barrameda) to be accepted as being of Asian descent by the Asian American community, even though he is a Russian Jew.  Marcus accepts that “the face that we choose to show in the world is who we become” and develops into an Asian American community activist. Hwang has his accidental “Rosa Parks moment.”  Hilarity ensues.  Meanwhile, the dad is questioned in an “Asian-gate” investigation, even though he hasn’t done anything wrong and is American.


I felt like I was part of the show because the seating is on the same level as the actors who move “in the round” from corner to corner.  Everyone is on stage all the time.  This production not only crosses racial lines, it also crosses gender lines, with women (Mara Palma and Helen Swanson) portraying men.  One character, Name Withheld On Advice of Counsel (Ajay Jain), is a reporter/announcer and another, Stuart Ostrow (Radha Shukla) plays several roles, including a gay man. The ensemble creates the majority of sound effects with their own voices, like answering machine beeps, machine guns, and ringing phones. They also portray characters from Republicans to backwater homemakers with country bumpkin accents.  They put on a face and save face, but the real question is, will they save themselves by taking off their masks?  I was on the edge of my seat wondering if Marcus G was going to “get away with” being a better Asian American than the Asian Americans. 


Historic events and local Boston names are scattered throughout the production.  For example, the play within the play “premieres” at the Colonial theater and the Asian American Resource Workshop (AARW), a real life community organization, is where the characters go to seek collective empowerment.  I laughed aloud as characters explained what it’s like to be Asian American, from being asked, “Where are you from?  No, where are you REALLY from?” to an explanation that “Jews are both waves and particles” because they are an ethnicity and a religion.  Yellow Face is smart, clever comedy, picking up the nuances of what it’s like to be oppressed and explaining them in a way that can be heard and learned from. 


This brilliant production left me wondering, “How can I get more folks to see this work?”  How can a show about racism reach those who don’t understand this country’s history and how discrimination is still influencing people’s lives and livelihood?”  One answer is that if you are part of the “choir” who understands “yellow face,” cultural appropriation, and discrimination, then bring along your friends, you know, the ones who are new to the choir. Don’t allow “Shikata ga nai” to happen, which means, “Nothing can be done about it” in Japanese. Lee Hall says, “The point of theater is transformation: to make an extraordinary event out of ordinary material right in front of an audience’s eyes.” Go see this show.  Educating ourselves is the first step to changing the world.


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