Study Guide

Yellow Face

by David Henry Hwang

Yellow Face Summary

Summary

Yellow Face premiered at Center Theater Group/Mark Taper Forum on May 10, 2007, in Los Angeles, California. A satirical, mock-documentary that explores the underlying foundation of what race means in America, Yellow Face includes the author, David Henry Hwang, as protagonist. Set from 1990 to 2007 in shifting places such as New York, Los Angeles, Washington D. C., Boston, San Francisco, and China, Yellow Face employs a broken, nonlinear narrative that floods the line between fact and fiction.

At the start of the play, the time is January 30, 2006, and DHH (David Henry Hwang) receives an e-mail from Marcus, the actor Hwang has cast in the leading role in his play Face Value. Marcus has left the United States to escape controversy and is staying in Guizhou Province, China. DHH comments that Marcus is missed by those in the Asian American community but realizes that he is still unknown in the mainstream culture.

The play suddenly shifts to a collage of media commentary on the career of DHH and the success of an earlier play, M. Butterfly, which won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1988. BD Wong, the actor who played the role of Song in M. Butterfly, enters the plot and talks to DHH about the casting of Jonathan Pryce, a Welsh actor, as the Engineer in Miss Saigon. The two are angry because a White actor has been cast in the role of French-Vietnamese character, and they think an Asian actor should have been cast instead. During the original run of Miss Saigon in London, Pryce wore eye prostheses and bronzing cream (i.e., “yellow face”) on stage, and DHH thinks this will not be allowed in America. BD assures him that Pryce has already been allowed to play the role on Broadway, and DHH is outraged, comparing the act to that of actors using black face to play “Mammy” roles earlier in the century. DHH, among others, registers his protest with the Actors’ Equity Association; on August 8, 1990, the association bars Pryce from playing the role of a Eurasian in the play. Controversy now sparks over recasting the role, and critics argue that Pryce’s performance is essential to Miss Saigon. The Asian American community demands that the association uphold its decision, but the association lifts the ban a little more than a week later.

Afterward, DHH receives a telephone call from his father, HYH (Henry Y. Hwang), who reads some of the press that has been published on his son. DHH has been actively and openly criticizing the Actors’ Equity Association, and HYH thinks all this is negative press for someone as successful as his son. HYH then says that Miss Saigon sounds like a lovely play and asks DHH to go see it with him when he visits New York the next month. DHH reminds his father that he protested the play, but HYH is caught up in the illusion of Miss Saigon’s plot and characters. DHH cannot believe that his father accepts this romanticized vision of...

(The entire section is 1223 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear