Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1223
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.
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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 Miss Saigon.
The play then shifts to discussions surrounding the casting for DHH’s new play, Face Value, a comedy about racial identity that was inspired by the controversy surrounding Pryce’s casting in Miss Saigon. The play has two roles for Asian American protesters, and Miles Newman, the casting director, brings in a string of Asian actors to audition for the parts. Even though obvious talent is put before him, DHH turns down actor after actor, claiming they just do not fit. But when Marcus G. Dahlman auditions, DHH is convinced he will be a star. Newman asks Dahlman many indirect questions to get him to offer information regarding his identity, but unwittingly Dahlman does not take the bait. Newman questions whether Dahlman is Asian (he certainly does not look Asian, and his surname is Dahlman), but DHH is otherwise convinced. When the play opens in previews, it is met with harsh criticism and flops before making it to Broadway.
DHH calls Rodney Hatamiya, an actor who played with Dahlman in another play and who auditioned for Face Value. During the course of their conversation, Rodney points to the irony of DHH casting Dahlman in the role of an Asian American when it was he who protested Miss Saigon. DHH claims that Dahlman is Asian, but Rodney questions DHH’s belief that Dahlman is anything except White. To save face, DHH concocts a story about Dahlman’s being a Siberian Jew. DHH wants to fire Dahlman to prevent him from performing in any future runs of Face Value, but his agent reminds him that he cannot make employment decisions based on a person’s race. So DHH is forced to convince Dahlman to play along with his lie—and Dahlman thus becomes known as Marcus Gee.
In his newly formed identity, Marcus Gee gathers the support of Asian American students and actors. As a full-fledged member of “the community,” Marcus Gee shares his so-called struggle to find his identity. Marcus travels to villages in China to “reconnect” with the past and the culture that he supposedly missed in his youth. Once he returns, Marcus Gee lands the leading role in The King and I, and his performance is met with rave reviews, especially concerning the “ethnic-authenticity” of the casting. Recognizing the false face that Marcus Gee has constructed for the public eye, DHH criticizes Marcus Gee for taking advantage of Asian and Asian American culture. Marcus Gee reminds DHH that this has all been his creation; DHH is now stuck in his own web of lies and can never reveal Marcus Gee’s true identity without risking his own integrity and reputation. DHH learns that Marcus Gee is dating one of his ex-girlfriends, Leah Anne Cho, and he tries to get Leah to see that Marcus Gee is false. Leah, however, accuses DHH of jealousy. Stumped again, DHH gets in touch with Marcus’s mother, Julia Dahlman, to get her to convince her son to end the charade. Surprisingly, Julia reminds DHH that race does not matter and says that she supports her son’s success.
Meanwhile, HYH’s bank is put under suspicion, and he gets caught in the chaos of anti-Chinese paranoia. Simultaneously, the nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee is accused of treason, and John Huang is charged with violating campaign finance laws. Protesters demand justice for accused Asian Americans, and Marcus Gee heads the charge. A reporter from The New York Times, whose name is withheld on the advice of counsel, questions DHH about his involvement in his father’s bank. DHH claims filial piety as his reason for agreeing to sit on the board of the bank. The reporter accuses DHH of soliciting illegal funds from China, citing DHH’s statement that he wants to fight the power of White America. DHH and the reporter argue about the conflicts between being Chinese and being American, and the two catch each other in contradictory statements.
HYH is diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, and Marcus Gee returns to share his sympathy with DHH. Both under public scrutiny, neither man wants to admit the truth. What good would the truth do for the community? In the end, Marcus Gee reminds DHH that he is his creation and that, as HYH always dreamed, one can be anything one imagines in America.