Last Updated on May 18, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 913
Identity and Self-Definition
Identity and self-definition are the essential themes of Yellow Face. From the start, DHH questions who he is as a playwright, a community member, and a man. By the end, he does not come to any definitive answers. Along the way, DHH explores what these constructs mean in the reality of his life. DHH has received much fame from the production of M. Butterfly, and he has a difficult time coming to terms with the epic failure of his play Face Value. Rather than take a humble standpoint, DHH allows his arrogance to consume him, and he tries to cover up the mistakes of the play. His notion of fame also stands in the way of any genuine support of Asian American causes: he is a strong supporter for the ban on Pryce, but he drops the issue once the media influences the Actors’ Equity Association to lift the ban. DHH decides that his time and energy are better spent on other things. DHH uses his Asian American identity when he sees fit and abandons it when it becomes an inconvenience. He is angry with Marcus Gee for not admitting to the public that his identity is a sham, but DHH is not willing to risk the downfall of his own career by voicing to the media that he is the one who created the lie about Marcus Gee. DHH’s conflict forces him to consider the importance of the defining characteristics of his identity.
Stereotypes and the Meaning of Race
In Yellow Face, Hwang examines the role of race in American culture and questions whether it is actually important. The situation regarding Jonathan Pryce’s portrayal of a Eurasian character in Miss Saigon through the use of face painting and eye prostheses prompts critical debate over the importance of representation and the appropriateness of masking features to achieve a particular look on stage. DHH draws a parallel between Pryce’s performance and the controversial use of black face in early minstrel shows. The comparison implicitly suggests that Pryce’s performance is nothing more than a degrading caricature meant to stereotype Asian Americans. However, DHH’s views are challenged by his own father, who is caught in the American Dream and only sees the romanticized beauty of Miss Saigon. He asks DHH whether it really matters who plays the role—after all, it is all just acting and the effects of the characters, the story, the music, and the setting on the audience are what really matter in the end. DHH does not know how to answer his father. As a result, the conflict between father and son leads to the larger issue of what constitutes as stereotyping and if, in the end, race really matters. A definitive answer to this question is not suggested by the play—it is left to the reader/viewer to consider.
Illusion versus Reality
Fiction and fact are seamlessly woven together throughout Yellow Face, and Marcus Gee’s character suggests that reality is only an imitation of what people want to believe. To cover up his own mistake, DHH creates the Asian American identity of Marcus Gee and uses his own fame to make people believe his lie. The Asian American community is convinced that Marcus Gee is a Siberian Jew, so they accept him as a brother. He is never questioned about the facts of his identity, nor is he questioned about his obvious non-Asian features. Everyone even disregards the fact that Marcus played the role of a White character in a previous play. It is only at the end of the play when the media scrutinizes Marcus Gee’s fame that questions arise concerning his ethnicity. But by this time, Marcus Gee has already become a prominent figure in the Asian American community. Protesters have supported his rise to stardom as an Asian American actor, Marcus has gone to China to “rediscover” his roots, and Marcus has used his role as a famous public figure to speak on behalf of Asian Americans. The community does not want to give up one of their strong voices, thus leading to major controversy. At the end of the play, Marcus confronts DHH and questions whether the constructs of race are even important.
The Role of Media in Society
In Yellow Face, snippets of media commentary are intertwined in the narrative and suggest the persuasive role that the media has on the reality of our lives. DHH and BD Wong openly and aggressively protest the casting of Jonathan Pryce in Miss Saigon and persuade the Actors’ Equity Association to ban Pryce from playing the role once the musical comes to the United States from London. After the ban is announced, backlash from the media begins, and critics argue that Pryce’s performance is woven into the very fabric that makes Miss Saigon a success. The Asian American community demands that the ban stay in place, but only a week after its decision, the Association repeals the ban. The force of the media that is supported by the ideals of a people is much too strong.
Similarly, when HYH is accused of financial treason, the media loops his story into those of other Asian Americans who have been accused of similar crimes, creating an unjust picture of Asian Americans as enemies of the state. The media juxtaposes images and stories to allow the power of persuasive comparison feed the mind of a public looking for a scapegoat.