Play Reading in English - Yellow Face by David Henry Hwang


HK English Speaking Union
  • Mon 15-05-2017 7:15 PM - 2 h


Free admission


Yellow Face is David Henry Hwang's self-mocking drama about his reaction to the casting of Caucasian actor Jonathan Pryce as a Eurasian character in the the Cameron Mackintosh–produced West End musical Miss Saigon. As the play begins, Hwang draws from his own public experience as an advocate for Asian American artists, recounting his frustrating role as a leading voice against the initially controversial Broadway staging of the musical. Functioning as a kind of autobiographical and meta-theatrical satire on the Asian American experience,  Yellow Face reworks the events into a farcical comedy.


Hwang places an ironically distanced version of himself in the play as a narrator figure. Highly critical of the casting choice, this figure, dubbed DHH, decides to write a play about mistaken racial identities called Face Value,  just as David Henry Hwang decided to do in real life. In this new play, the lead character, an Asian American activist, is supposed to infiltrate a production wearing white-face, only to reveal later that he is Asian. But, much to DHH's horror, in his zeal to avoid stereotypical assumptions of "Asian" physical features he accidentally casts a Caucasian actor, Marcus Dahlman, in the role of the activist. Face Value is the play that Hwang wrote in real life in response to Miss Saigon, although that play starred the Chinese American actor B. D. Wong for its brief New York run. When Hwang realises belatedly that Marcus really is white, he invents a story that Marcus has Siberian Jewish ancestry. Meanwhile, Hwang's father, HYH, is caught in a political contribution scandal, and the two of them are forced to examine their relationship and shared heritage.


With this neat twist of the Caucasian actor passing himself off as Asian, Hwang is able to examine the hall of mirrors surrounding race and ethnicity in contemporary society, demonstrating not only how Marcus ironically profits from his newfound status as a potentially "oppressed" man of color, but also how that "oppression" has less to do with one's actual ethnic background than with how one attempts to perform one's identity in a world fond of neat classifications. Guardian newspaper critic Michael Billington writes: "Hwang uses the satirical format to ask what it means to be classified by ethnicity, and also to invoke the xenophobic persecution of Chinese-Americans in the late 1990s. Behind the laughter, this is a probingly political play that tests the validity of Hwang's optimistic assertion that 'it doesn't matter what someone looks like on the outside'. It's a peach of a play, using theatre as a metaphor for life and exploring the implications of being racially hyphenated." In the context of the crude national and cultural chauvinism, the subtle or less subtle xenophobia and the shallow political posturing that we observe wherever we look in today's 'post-truth', 'alternative facts' world, Hwang's biting play is arguably even more topical now than it was when it first appeared in 2009.


Facilitators:  Mike Ingham & Julian Quail


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